Film Music on the Web (UK)

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

STAR WARS Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace
- April 9th, 1999

I. = Interviewer

JW. = John Williams

I. So, I thought it would be interesting to start by going back in time, to talk about what it was like when you first met George Lucas. What was your impression of the original Star Wars when you first saw it?

JW. I met George I think, approximately, in 1976. He was looking for a composer for Star Wars and I think he asked his friend Steven Spielberg who he would recommend. I had just done Sugarland Express and Jaws with Steven Spielberg, and Steven recommended that I go and see George. I came to see him - he then had an office at Universal Studios - and we chatted. I remember meeting a very ... what I thought was a very young man at the time, who had done American Graffiti. I don't think I had seen it. And he was, then as now, very enthusiastic and a very appealing young man. I was very happy to do what I thought was going to be a kind of weekend spaceship film, never dreaming that it would have the kind of life and longevity and impact on the public that it has had. George, like Steven Spielberg, to me is very unchanged over the years, even with all of the success.

I. George often talks about his movies as, " silent movies." Obviously they are not "silent movies", but he sees himself as working in the spirit of silent movies. What does that mean to you as a composer?

JW. When George refers to his movies as "silent movies", I think he is speaking about several aspects of the genre. He writes scripts, and they have dialogue, they have a text, but there is a hurtling forward in the editing and in the conception of the thing that is really cinematic. It is not a literary expression, even though there is a literary aspect to it. And so, when he says "silent film", I think he is referring to a kind of rhythmic and visual energy - so that you could almost remove the text and it would still hurtle forward. It is the kind of rhythmic and kinetic expression that speaks - and that is what music is about really - events in time and events in a certain speed, or lack of speed. So I don't think that George means "silent movie" in terms of the fact that the movie doesn't have sound, but more in terms of the spirit of the action movies of the silent period that didn't depend on a literary text, but action, visual effects and timing, and probably music.

People have observed that even the silent films of the 1920's, the films that we refer to as being silent, were never really silent. An orchestra was always in the pit or an organist or some music from the classical repertoire was being played at the same time as the movie. And that is still really the part of the tradition of what we do. George links strongly with that past. I am very fortunate to work-with a director like that because music is kind of a sensual (or essential?) pulse of what he does Cinematically. It makes my role an important one, or an integral one, to the real spirit and heartbeat of his films.

I When you become involved in a project, do you feel that you are becoming part of the storytelling process?

JW. Well, that is another aspect of the silent film technique. What you suggest is correct. Music is part of the characterisation of the film. There is melodic identification with a series of characters, which is very typical of opera of the nineteenth century, and earlier. Melodic identification for characters or for plot exposition, becomes an aural set of beacons or reference points. In George's films there is more music per foot of film than anywhere else - except maybe a cartoon, where everything is illustrated musically.

I Does Star Wars, which is a two-hour and ten minute film, actually have about two hours of music in it?

JW. It is remarkable to me that George's films have required almost constant music. If the film is two hours, which I think Star Wars approximately was, we had nearly two hours of music. It is nearly the same in the Phantom Menace. The technique is the same and the spirit of what he is doing has the same requirement. The only thing that is comparable would be the cartoons of the past. For example, look at the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons of the past. The music in the cartoons really illustrates every point of the story, and probably has a little tune for each character. That is no different from opera and other areas of musical theatre. For example, in a two-hour ballet, you might still have nearly two hours of music. But you might have a four-bars rest somewhere, where some dramatic moment of stasis is created, and silence becomes the most deafening thing. We also have that when we use silence. We use it almost as a kind of musical point of emphasis.

I It sounds as if your collaboration with George Lucas was an opportunity to work with a director who still likes to use this classical genre.

JW. Exactly, and it makes me enormously fortunate to work with George and to have the opportunity that this particular genre of film offers. It is almost unique.

I. Tell me a little about the process. At what point do you get involved?

JW. Well, over the years, George has kept in touch with me. He rang me a year ago to tell me that the time was coming, that the script was ready and that he was preparing to shoot the film. He gave me a date when the music would be needed. Then he rang me two or three months later to arrange a spotting date - where we go in a dark room and talk about where the music is going to go, what the music should do, etc. We will have ongoing discussions about where we will play the music. George will say things like, "It should get quicker here, or softer," or whatever. Then I go off to my studio here at Amblin, down in Los Angeles, miles away from where George is, and I write the score. And that is the way we have worked. And, four films later, it has been a very good, comfortable collaboration. George is a wonderful collaborator and a marvellous friend. It also has been fun.

I. It sounds like part of the process is that you have to be a good listener. Sometimes, if the director is not a musician himself, can he have a hard time describing what he wants?

JW. Music is different. It is even hard for musicians to express what music is really about. You can't really make sense of it. It is like if you try to translate poetry into prose - you make a great mistake. If you try to translate music into some kind of literal representation, we are not really getting to the heart of the matter. But, of the contemporary filmmakers, George is certainly a sympathetic person to work with. And music is also a bit beyond predicting. A lot of time you will get more from a piece than you expected that you would get. And that is the magical part of it.

I. How does the music on Episode One differ from the original Star Wars films?

JW. You and I are doing this interview in 1999, which is over twenty years since the trilogy was started. It is daunting for me, or for any composer, to start any project. One thinks, "Will 1 be able to some up with something as good?" That challenge was there with the Phantom Menace. Certainly it is true that we have approximately 120-minutes of music in the film. I think that maybe 10%, or possibly less, comes from the earlier three films. There is a minute and a half of the opening Star Wars music which we felt was obligatory. So, nearly 90% of the music is new. Anakin's theme, the music for the Flag Parade, the funeral scene (Qui-Gon's Funeral), the race, Jar-Jar's music etc. The challenge for me was to write music that was as effective as the first trilogy, but also that it would be wedded to the tapestry of the earlier films so that it would sound like a natural outgrowth.

We came back to London to record with the London Symphony Orchestra. I think that there were about twelve members of the orchestra that were in the original band from the other soundtracks. But they sounded the same. It is like the Boston Symphony, or any great symphony orchestra. After thirty years, the personnel has changed but there is a continuity and organic continuum there.

I. So, you felt that going back to use the London Symphony Orchestra was essential to get the original sound?

JW. Yes, and I think it was important to George also. In a superstitious sense, perhaps, or just in the sense of keeping the same team in place.

I. At the same time, there must have been a lot of personal pressure not to make it the same but rather, give it a fresh voice of its own.

JW. It presented wonderful challenges in trying to make it the same and trying to make it different and make it fresh. In Anakin's theme, I wrote that backwards, in the same way that George wrote his script. It is really Darth Vader's theme taken apart and reconstructed. If you listen to it very carefully, you can hear the intervals of the structure of the Imperial March of Darth Vader, which is an Evil Imperial Power piece, transformed into a very sweet and lyrical, youthful tune. That was just sort of poetic conceit, but it was a fun trick. You now hear the metamorphosis itself from something beginning in a very innocent way, ending in this portentous kind of feeling. The music, like the boy, is going to turn into something darker and more complicated.

I. It is no secret that George writes in archetypes. His characters are meant to be more symbolic than they are human. His stories are harking back to mythology. When you wrote the music for the original films, did you think in terms of expansive archetypal themes?

JW. I think that is very much the case in music. If a character is noble, the music should go beyond the nobility of that particular character, and become generic and express nobility not just the man.

I. When you were writing music for Star Wars or the Phantom Menace, did you feel that you were writing music that was going to be easily memorable?

JW. This is really the central aspect of film composing. When we write music for films, we do not have the audience's full attention, aurally, with the ear. They are hearing a lot of sound effects, or dialogue and will maybe only hear the music once or twice. So the music has to be simple and straightforward. You have to be able to hear through the dialogue. You gain the person's attention note by note, step by step.

One of the things that you might do is if a melody is complex in its end form, if it has twelve notes, then the audience hears the first three in reel two, and then hears six notes in reel five, but they get the full complexity of the twelve notes at the end of the film. Finally, there is a wonderful sense of the audience seeing, not consciously, an inevitability of something that they might have even predicted themselves. That is part of the dramatic mechanism of pulling the audience in. If we create melodies that can be remembered, subconsciously through the maze of dialogue and effects, we are better off.

I. It sounds like an attempt to lead the viewer without having them know that they are being led?

JW. That is what writing is about. And it is also what musical theatre is about. Musical construction is no different from the way that you construct a play, or a screenplay.

I. Is the orchestration the same in the Phantom Menace as it was in the original Star Wars films?

JW. Yes, the first three films had the London Symphony Orchestra with a standard orchestral arrangement of winds, brass, strings and percussion. The only things we have added this time are some electronic, synthesized keyboard sounds, materials that were not available in 1977. 1 have not used a lot of that, but there is some electronic sound. Also, there is more choral work in the piece that involves either women, children or a mixed choir.

I. Tell me about the large choral piece that comes at the end of the film. 1 am curious about the use of Sanskrit.

JW. This choral piece, which has to do with the sword fight and comes at the end of the film, is a result of my thinking that something ritualistic and/or pagan and antique might be very effective. I thought that the introduction of a chorus at a certain point in the film might just be the right thing to use. And, to take that idea of simplicity a bit further, I thought that 1 needed some kind of a text in order to do this. I could have used Isaiah's Vision of the Angels, which does not have a text - that could have been effective.

One of my favourite books is Robert Graves' White Goddess, which is basically a history of poetry, but also has a lot to do with Celtic folklore. 1 recently wrote The Five Sacred Trees based on this book. In reading about the five sacred trees, I remembered the great Celtic epic poem The Battle of the Trees, in which two fields of trees are animated by a druid priest and they become warriors, and on command from the druid, the trees again freeze and go back to being trees. There is a stanza in that poem translated by Graves from the early Celtic into modem English, which is roughly, "Under the tongue root a fight most dread/ While another rages behind the head." And for no conscious sensible reason, the idea of a fight, something raging and imagined in the head more than anywhere seemed to be a good mystical cryptic piece of business.

I collaborated with some friends at Harvard University, first asking them to translate it into Celtic, then into Greek, and finally into Sanskrit, just looking for good choral sounds and good vowels. The reason we like to sing in Italian is because it does not have consonant word endings, like our English, which is so hard to sing. Celtic does not work either for that same reason, nor does Greek. But Sanskrit is less well-known and has beautiful sounds, it is a gorgeous language. I have reduced the stanza which was translated literally and used either single words or syllables or combinations of these things, the words "dreaded fight" for example, and repeated them. Everyone knows this idea from the Hallelujah chorus, where you sing the word hallelujah for twenty-minutes. It gives an atmosphere to the music.

I. How do you think the audience is going to react to this film?

JW. Well, whenever a film is preceded by such huge anticipation, one little corner of your soul worries, will it come up to the expectation of what people want? I never make any assumptions with these things. Rather than assume anything, I just have hope. I hope that they will enjoy it, that they will be moved by it, that it will be a big experience for them. I only know my part thus far. It is all going to be put together so that we can sit back and see what the whole sum of all of this work is going to add up to. I have spoken already about the cross generalisation of Star Wars. For example, I have had members of the London Symphony Orchestra say to me, "We started studying music twenty years ago only because we heard Star Wars and then we wanted to play it in the London Symphony Orchestra when we grew up. And here we are playing on the sound track of the new film." What this says is that this story has jumped a generation or two and will live longer than any of us. So, we can be indebted to George Lucas for creating something that is really bigger than the parts of it.

I. Working on Star Wars is like taking part in ... ?

JW. ...It is like being part of a community. It has a life of its own. And this certainly makes it exciting as we do not quite know what is coming next. We all feel that it is an organic thing that we are part of. That makes us members of a community.

I. How does it feel when you watch the final print of the film, once the music has been cut in?

JW. I review the film with George when everything has been put together; the music, the sound effects and the dialogue. We compromise in terms of what is going to gain the majority of the people's attention.-in terms of listening. What it really is, is a balancing session. We are trying to shape things so that if we have too much music we can move into something else, and then back to the music where the sound effects need some relief from what they are doing. So again, it is a cooperative way of collaborating in trying to achieve a balance that you can only have at the final stage when everything has been put together.

I. How does George Lucas communicate to you what he wants for a particular scene?

JW. George's method of communicating is straightforward. We will be spotting the film in a projection room And he will say, "I think the music should start here, or stop here, or that it should grow louder here, or quicker here." The general outline of loud, soft, fast, slow, threatening, benign, sentimental, whatever words we can use to try to express what the music is going to impart emotionally. Then I have to try to take those thoughts and translate them into a series of harmonic associations that will hopefully produce in a musical term, these basic emotions and dramatic elements.

I. How do you decide what will be on the soundtrack CD?

JW. The first thing we need to do is reduce the score from 120 minutes to approximately 80 or 75 minutes. I continue to file the music down so that it makes a musical programme in the same way that I would build a concert programme with an orchestra. It has an opening, a beginning, a middle and an end, with a set of varying dynamics - almost the way you would plan a menu. The speed is varied, and dynamics are varied so that you have aural interest. You do not want to put all of the loud music together and all of the soft music together, any more than you would in a concert programme.

I. How much music do you record during the scoring sessions?

JW. In a typical recording day for a film like the Phantom Menace, we try to accomplish about fifteen minutes of screen time. We need to use everything that we record. George and I have carefully discussed what we need and where it goes and I do think that everything that we recorded for this film has been used. I think that we recorded this music in about eight or nine days.

I. Can you explain how you use digital technology in the recording process?

JW. The recording process, even with all of the electronics that we have available today, is still the attempt to capture a moment in time. And that moment is actually a performance. We may do three takes of the same scene. One of them will be right. It is like any performance. Actors, artists and musicians vary from night to night and will be different. That is the fun of it and the magic of live performance. We never do the same thing twice. I think that if we capture a great performance by orchestra and by cast, and put it on the soundtrack of a film, the audience is experiencing something that is organic and alive and not synthesized and not manufactured by machines. Instead, it is produced by living people.

The best example is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Years ago, Steven Spielberg and I created the scene with lights moving with the five notes. We started this sequence originally with machines and it wasn't very interesting. We ended up having a live tuba player and a live oboist actually perform, and then we tricked up their sounds. But they had to breathe, and as they ran out of breath their- notes got a little weaker, and as they filled their lungs it got stronger. So the performance actually had some aspect of humanity about it that you could feel.

Reprinted with permission form SONY