Interview: Craig Safan
While not necessarily being a household name, Craig Safan has still composed memorable music for movies such as Thief and The Last Starfighter. I caught up with him to talk about that film's 30th anniversary and the upcoming release of his music for Warning Sign...
CHARLIE BRIGDEN: One of the reasons why I wanted to do this interview is because I work sometimes with Invada Records and I've been chatting with Redg [Weeks, Label manager] there about the Warning Sign LP, so when he played that record to me, it was the first time I heard that score, so I wanted to touch on that.
CRAIG SAFAN: Right. It's a pretty obscure score, I was surprised when I got the call from Redg that he wanted to do it, I thought "gee, nobody's mentioned this score for a long time" [laughs] but it was nice to hear from him, and I found the original masters which was nice, I actually had them in storage.
CB: Is that the case with most of your scores?
CS: No, it's the opposite. Actually, most scores the studios keep the masters and the composer's given a copy that sometimes isn't that great. However, since that was such an early synth score we never went into a scoring stage so I did that all basically in my own studio and it was in an earlier period where the studios weren't really involved, it was sort of like "well you just do it and we'll transfer it [to mag film] and put it in the movie" but I don't think they ever got a copy of the original master, so when I looked in my storage I found this master tape. It's pretty unusual, I was surprised but I was happy because it sounds really good.
CB: I'm always hearing tales of these scores that have been lost because of whatever reason, so to have it preserved like that is amazing.
CS: That's true, there's a record label here [in California] called Intrada and they do a lot of soundtracks. They're releasing a new edition of The Last Starfighter and they were able to get the original master mixes which is great, they sounded amazing, but then they got the rights to do Remo Williams and they wanted to remix it so there was a whole new mix, and I just got an email from Doug Fake [Intrada head honcho] that they thought they had the tapes, but we actually had two 24-track tapes synced together so we were on 48 tracks, but he figured out that the studio only gave him one of those 24-track tapes and because it was such a complex score - you know this was pre-digital so you had physical tracks - so he has to go back and try to get them, whether it's at Universal or wherever, but to try to get them to find the tapes that go with these tapes, so we're just sort of at a standstill with that project. So you're right, they lose this stuff you know, they're just archived and, who knows. Who knows where they end up?
CB: One story that's always been a popular one amongst enthusiasts is the Bond film, John Barry's Moonraker, which for whatever reason was recorded in a studio in Paris and apparently the tapes have been lost somewhere.
CS: Wow, no I've never heard that story. But you know, all that stuff happens cause if the studio wasn't meticulous and it wasn't recorded on a soundstage with the studio in control, it's very likely that it just slipped through the cracks. And plus, they didn't really use that magnetic tape when they dubbed the film, they used the magnetic film that was on 35mm so a lot of times the tape wasn't taken care of properly.
CB: We'll go onto Warning Sign. That was your first score with the Synclavier, right?
CB: How amazing was that?
CS: Well, it was quite an experience. I've always been very into synthesisers, so even when I was in college I worked in the synth lab, and that was in the late sixties, so I felt good about working with synthetic music for a long time, but the Synclavier was just a whole nother beast. First of all it had sampling and then it had synthesis and it was all in one package, it was a giant machine, it ran on UNIX and was very expensive, it was $75, 000 and this is in like the early eighties, so this was a lot of money. I mean in those days you could buy a house for $70, 000, seriously. It was a big amount of money, but I just was really into it so I decided to buy it for this project, and I convinced the director and the producer that we should do the movie this way. And I was basically learning the machine and reading the manuals as I was composing it. There were three three or four-inch loose-leaf manuals that went with this thing, and I was trying to read it and learn how to use it and learn how to use the sequencers and the sampling, and I wanted to sample my own sounds, so a lot of those sounds I sampled myself. It was very challenging, it was fun but it was really like a science project as much as a composing project [laughs] but it was great, I thought it was a great instrument and I did a lot of work on it over the years, but that was I think the only one that was only like Synclavier, there was nothing else.
CB: So when you went to Fox and said I want to do this fully on this machine, what did they say?
CS: They were all for it, they thought it was a great idea and that it was the new thing. I had no resistance whatsoever. This wasn't a big giant-budget film, and I think they looked at it, "well, we can pay this guy a rental fee" so I was charging them a daily rental, which sort of ended up paying back a lot of the cost. But on the other hand, they didn't have to call a sixty-piece orchestra and hire a stage and mixers, it was a pretty simple deal so I think financially it was a good thing for them. And of course that proved true, because that was just the first step to where they stopped hiring orchestras [laughs] so, you know.
CB: You mentioned using synthesisers before, was there much of a difference between writing for synths than an orchestra?
CS: Yes, it is. First of all it tends to be more improvisatory because of the sounds, and you're playing with sequencers, and then also the sounds themselves are much more complex than the sound of a solo instrument, so you can't really approach it like a traditional classical orchestra. You know, how the oboe fits in with the clarinet, and where you throw the flute, and if you try to do the same things with synthesisers it gets sort of a big muddy mess, because there's so much more sonic levels of material in the synth sound, so you don't orchestrate in the same way. And that's one of the problems with mixing synthesisers with the orchestra, the synths can make the orchestra sound diminutive very quickly, they can just overwhelm it.
CB: Have you any kind of theory on why electronic scores work so well within the horror and thriller genres?
CS: Well, yes I think that it comes from the same place where modern music - meaning mid-20th century music to now, the sort of non-tonal aleatoric whatever - is heading, we can't easily place them in scales, they tend to confuse us, they go sort of directly into your body, especially the rhythm portions, and so they can throw you off balance and that's exactly what you want to do when you're writing music for that kind of film. You can see it from even early science fiction things, because they also gives us the feeling of another world, so probably the first all-synth score was Forbidden Planet I believe, and that was just totally synth. And it was great. Or let's say the scene in 2001 where they find the monolith that uses the Ligeti piece, and that's like a really amazing modern piece, and it just gives this feeling of something from another world.
CB: At the time, did you have many influences from electronic music?
CS: Not really. The only electronic music I had really heard was Morton Subotnick, who wrote pieces that were released on Nonesuch Records. He used the Buchla system; there were two systems, Moog and Buchla, and at that time they were very pure, you couldn't tune them, you couldn't make normal music with them because they came out of the modernist classical music, they did not come out of popular music. So they were really untuneable, and Morton Subotnick wrote this wonderful piece called Silver Apples of the Moon, and I thought it was a great piece. But other than that I hadn't really heard very much electronics, but I'd played with it a huge amount when I was at school, I got the key to the electronic music studio and I'd go in there at midnight and spend four or five hours every night, just fiddling with all the dials and see what they did.
CB: It's quite amazing that in the 70's there was almost this double movement going on where you had John Williams' symphonic sound and people like John Carpenter and yourself bringing in synthesisers in a big way.
CS: Yeah, and I was on both ends of that stick because then I did The Last Starfighter which of course was straight out of that big romantic Sibelius tradition, although I did throw in synthesisers in that score.
CB: The last time Warning Sign had a release it was 1988, so it must be nice to see it coming back out especially as it's one of the more obscure titles.
CS: Yeah. I'm enjoying it and I actually liked hearing the music again and I liked that people actually noticed it, especially that the generation like Geoff Barrow and the like who grew up with a lot of heavy metal music and electronics and all that appreciae it, it was sort of an interesting thing that was happening back in the early 80's. It's been great to hear it from the masters - we had to bake the masters and then digitise them - and I've really enjoyed it.
CB: I don't think people outside of the film score enthusiast circles necessarily appreciate that you can't just pull the masters out of a draw somewhere and just transfer them to CD or LP.
CS: Yeah, not anymore, the tapes are degrading very quickly and that includes all those rock and roll music that was recorded in the 60's and 70's on multitrack. All that stuff has to be baked and dealt with before you can transfer it to digital or it'll be gone forever.
CB: I recall hearing that one of the few tape players than can deal with some of these masters is at Disneyland Imagineering, which is kind of incredible really.
CS: Yeah, I went to this guy's place - his name is Johnny Davis - and going into his studio, it's basically just several huge rooms and he must have forty different kind of players that are all vintage now and he keeps them all going now, from early digital to mag film to the different Ampex and Sony machines to the DAT machines, and he has them all going because that's what he does. He has to figure out how to play this old tape and get it played properly so they can then digitise it. It's pretty amazing, like an archelogical expedition in there. It's wild.
CB: It must be so amazing to someone who's used to just plugging their iPod in and putting their music on that you have to put these tapes in an actual oven.
CS: Yeah, it's so basic, isn't it. It's like, "well, I'm gonna bake my tapes" and he just uses an oven. And he says it really stinks when he does it [laughs] and they do it at a low temperature for a long time, twelve or fourteen hours.
CB: How do you feel about all the extra material being included?
CS: I love that. We have what I'd consider my main featured pieces of music on the first part of the CD or the first LP, and I never quite understood this, but I know collectors like to hear every little thing. I think it's sort of silly, honestly. I'd be very happy with just the major cues, because in any film score one has to write a bunch of ten or thirty second cues, it's just part of the nuts and bolts of the film business and I don't consider them especially great pieces of music, they were just things that had to be done. But, you know, if the people who love film music - the aficionados - like it, that's great. To me I don't care, I just like the major pieces, all the other stuff is a curiousity, but as a collector myself I collect old sheet music. I understand that a collector wants everything.
CB: I love that this dichotomy is in place. I was speaking to Cliff Martinez a couple of weeks ago, and he was the same, he always wants his albums to be like twenty or thirty minutes long, but then you have the other enthusiasts which hunt down every scrap of music to the point of taking it from the DVD.
CS: Right. Well there's a difference between a collector and a composer, I mean like if you collect stamps you want every variation, it's just the psychology of a collector who are fanatical. I totally get that, because we're all collectors in our family and I understand that. I don't have that feeling about my music though.
CB: Well yeah, there's a special term of endearment amongst Jerry Goldsmith collectors where they refer to "bottlecaps", where they have to have every single score, every single album of his that ever comes out.
CS: Oh yeah, well they'll be kept quite busy with Jerry [laughs].
CB: I think Jerry was interesting in himself with the release of the first Star Trek score, where they have the three-disc version with every little bit of score and all the alternates. And speaking from the point of view as a fan - it's my favourite ever score - it's lovely to listen to the whole thing and study it and see how the score evolved.
CS: I totally understand that. When I was just in Cordoba one of the nights at the film music festival was a tribute to Jerry and his wife [Carol] was there - who's an old friend of mine - and it was very nice, the music was beautiful. They didn't do that score however, but to me the high point was Gremlins, that was so much fun to hear that performed live by an orchestra.
CB: Did they have live synths?
CS: No, they didn't use synths, everything was re-orchestrated so it could be played by an orchestra. Also, Cliff is going to have to do that for Ghent [World Soundtrack Awards]. He's gonna have to take all his music and figure out how to make an orchestra play it [laughs]. It's challenging. I had to do that before, I did the overture to Remo Williams and I had to figure out how to do it without Korean instruments and without a synthesiser, but it came out great, it was fun. But it was a challenge.
CB: You mentioned vinyl earlier, do you have any kind of fondness for the format?
CS: Well other than I grew up with it. I don't even own a player, so I'm gonna have to now go out and invest in one. But I know everyone is totally into it, but I don't quite get it. I mean it sounds great.
CB: Again, Cliff was the same, he said he has a bunch of his records on a shelf but they're all still in the plastic wrap.
CS: Well I have a lot of vinyl that I've just kept copies of, I have a vinyl Starfighter, I think I have a Nightmare On Elm Street , I have the original Warning Sign, I have a whole bunch of stuff that was released on vinyl but I can't play it.
CB: I'd like to talk about Wolfen. Is that okay?*
CB: What did Michael Wadleigh ask for originally from you for that score?
CS: What he really wanted, and what I pitched and what we talked about, was an extremely sound-orientated orchestra using no synths but just have the orchestra play sounds, and we were very influenced by John Corigliano who did Altered States, and that kind of composition where the orchestra's playing more sound events than melodies. And that's what I was signed on to do, but the problem was that when I got signed and everybody was happy, the producer came to me and said "I'm so glad you're doing this Craig cause we really want a kind of John Williams approach" [laughs] and so I realised that those two people - the producer and the director - really had totally different visions of the film and were not talking to each other. It was a death spiral from there.
CB : Was it you or Wadleigh that went first?
CS: It was Michael. Michael was fired and they let me score the film, they said "we like what you're doing, just go ahead and do it" and that was sort of more political I think. And then the second director basically came on and immediately said "I don't want this score" and hired James [Horner], who did a real traditional horror film score, which is what they wanted.
CB: Was there much difference between what you scored and what made it into theatres?
CS: You know I never saw the final cut, so - I mean I saw my cut, but then I know they fired the editors too. They were on the film forever, and they had a group of editors and basically they just cleaned house, so they fired the editors, they recut it, and they got rid of anything that [Wadleigh] had done. But I've never really watched it, the recut, I never went to see it. I know there's still a few pieces of my music in it, not much, but a few things because I see the royalty statements. But it's certainly one of my favourite scores, so I was very happy when Intrada decided to release it. And I thought they did a great job, and I thought it was cool that they released both scores. I have great respect for that label. They do a lot of Jerry Goldsmith's stuff!
CB: Is it surprising to you to see these unused scores actually come out?
CS: No, I think it's great. I mean a huge amount of effort went into these scores, and if you think of like the score to 2001 by Alex North or any one of a number of scores that were thrown out, I think it's fantastic that they see the light of day to people that are interested. Wolfen was the only score I've only really had thrown out but it happens to everybody at some point.
CB: With the more experimental nature of that score, is that something you prefer doing?
CS: I don't prefer anything, I'm a very eclectic composer and I try and find what's right for the film. I've done that kind of really weird music, and really comic normal scoring, and big giant scores, and if you listen to Stand And Deliver it's a really small score with guitars, or Elm St which is pure synth. I just try to find what's proper for the picture and then I get excited about doing it. But I don't personally one kind of music over another, I like most music if it's done well.
CB: Who are your influences in terms of film composers?
CS: Well, in terms of film I guess my favourite is Max Steiner, who really was just an amazing composer. I like John Barry, I saw him conduct when I was young and I was really impressed with what he did, and I was lucky enough to have a guy named Fred Steiner as one of my mentors - and no relation to Max - and Fred was doing a lot of writing about film music as well as composing, and he got a hold of Max Steiner's original sketches for King Kong, and when I was just starting out he screened King Kong on 16mm and we followed the score in Steiner's handwriting. I mean, King Kong is one of the first film scores that was written for the film, so that was very influential. Bernard Herrmann was obviously an amazing composer, you tend to be influenced when you're in your teens and twenties when everything is new. But those are the people that I tend to remember as being really interesting composers.
CB: Was there one event or something that made you want to write for film?
CS: Yes, it was a phone call from a friend that said "I got married, I'm in LA, my husband's going to the AFI and he made this little horror film, you're the only person in LA I know who's a musician, do you know who can score it?" And I said "I'll do it". And it was just that simple, I never thought of being a film composer at all, I was a songwriter and arranging records and singing and trying to be The Beatles, and when this film came along - which never even got released - and I did it, it was like "wow, this is so much more fun than writing pop music and such a perfect use of my talent" [laughs]. It was revelatory, this is what I need to be doing. But it was just accidental, I never planned to be a film composer, but I don't think very many people planned it at that point in history. There were no schools, like now you can go to any number of schools, like the Berkley School of Music or USC or UCLA, and you can study to be a film composer. That did not exist in the 70's.
CB: It's funny because I read an article the other day about how all the people from rock and pop are coming over to do music for film, and I thought sure it's high-profile now, but that's been happening for decades.
CS: Well sure, if you think of Stewart Copeland [of The Police] or Mark Mothersbaugh [of Devo], those people have been writing film music for probably thirty years.
CB: Exactly. Even Cliff [Martinez] again was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
CS: Oh, I didn't even know that. There certainly were always a bunch of guys from there.
CB: Do you have a favourite film score?
CS: I don't know, the only thing that pops to mind is Lawrence of Arabia, which I still think is an amazing score. It's just so evocative and beautiful and expresses the whole movie. But the other one that comes to mind is North By Northwest, that's an incredible score. So inventive and so much fun, what's great about it is it's exciting and dangerous but we're having so much fun at the same time, it's like it captures the insane joyousness of the situation Cary Grant is in, it totally gets that nervous exhilarance.
CB: Do you have a favourite of your own scores?
CS: I think right now Stand And Deliver is maybe my favourite but I don't know. I wrote a new suite for The Last Starfighter for the International Film Music Festival in Cordoba last month and that was really fun. It was fun to stand in front of an orchestra and actually hear it again. So I still like that music. Those are probably my two favourites but I change, it changes.
CB: So going onto The Last Starfighter, does it feel like thirty years?
CS: Only because talk to me about it so much [laughs]. It gets played a lot by different orchestras, and if they're around I go to listen and people come up to me and just start quoting from the movie [laughs]. It does sort of feel like it, but it doesn't, it's very immediate. But actually I got the original scores back in my hand to do this suite, so that was interesting, to look at what I had written back then. But I remember when the 25th anniversary was because there were a lot of screenings here in LA.
CB: It's so beloved, and the appeal of that score for me is the mix of big marches and heroism and the beautiful Americana that gives it a kind of Star Wars quality to it, especially with the musical iconography of the heroes.
CS: When I got that job there was really no other way to go other than to do the Star Wars approach, you really couldn't do it any other way and hope to not get fired so you're pretty much stuck to that. But I tried to find my own way and my own kind of melody, and basically even though there's a lot of different melodies, there's really only one and that is played in so many styles, whether it's the love theme or the heart theme or the adventure theme or the heroic theme, it's the same melody, so that's sort of different. I think I used as my model more Sibelius whereas John Williams' was clearly Holst, and Star Wars is totally temp-tracked with The Planets. Anyway you look at it, it's that big giant late romantic European orchestra [laughs]. I mean it was fun, it sure is fun to have a big orchestra like that.
CB: Do you remember how you came up with that melody?
CS: I was in the car, I was driving and it just came into my head. I'd been thinking about it and I sketched it down while I was at a stop light, it just sort of stuck with me. That was fun, that was a fun project.
CB: You mentioned earlier about the electronics in the score, it's something I always notice that whenever I listen to another orchestra's recording of the titles, it always sounds like there's something missing because they don't put the twinkling synths in.
CS: Yeah, they never do it right. The problem is that even today, it's very difficult for orchestras to conceive of having a synthesiser player, which is sort of ridiculous because we did that live. I mean, Richard Gibbs played the synth on that and he was in the room with the orchestra. And he was synced up and there was a lot of tricks to sync it all together because it was all on sequencers to get that sparkling effect but it was not a big deal. The thing is, orchestras will occasionally hire one keyboard player but they'll have no idea how to mix it in with the orchestra in a live setting. It's a problem.
When you hear the brand new Starfighter that's being released around October 28th** it's going to have everything in it, every little piece of music from the original masters. And I went up and remastered it with the Intrada guys, and it was amazing how much synth you hear in it, there's a lot, I'd forgotten how much there really was. Usually you think of the big main title where there isn't much synth, but a lot of the dramatic music and the battle music has these huge synths pads underneath, but it was not remixed, it was all live.
CB: Do you take a big part in the production of your albums?
CS: If I'm asked. But many albums no, I had nothing to do with it. But a lot of times at Perseverance where I'm friends with Robin [Estehammer] they'll invite me and I'll come to the mixing sessions, and occasionally at Intrada, because I've been working with Doug Fake for so many years, I'll fly to Oakland and spend the day in the studio. But other companies, no. They just kind of pop out [laughs], for better or for worse.
CB: Other than the MIA Remo, are there any other releases of yours in the pipeline?
CS: Yeah, obviously Starfighter, I'm not sure what's going to happen with Remo, but I was told that there is a company in Europe that is going to be releasing all the Bad News Bears scores, I guess there were three or four of those movies and I did the second one. They're all adaptations of famous music, the first one was Carmen, mine was the 1812 Overture, so that I hear is on the way. And Robin was telling me he was trying to get the rights to The Legend of Billie Jean, and that's sort of a very interesting score but I don't know how far he's gotten. That's about all I know, I don't really know what's going on [laughs].
CB: Craig Safan, thank you very much.
CS: My pleasure.
*Craig's score to Wolfen was not used and the film's history is tumultuous
**This release has been delayed
Thanks to Craig Safan and Beth Krakower
Read our Warning Sign review here