ScoreKeeper Is THE INFORMANT! And Brings You His Secret Conversation With Composer Marvin Hamlisch!
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here yearning to partake in the spirit of giving that's rampant this time of year. So why don't you pull up a chair and indulge yourself in a heaping helping of insight from one of the most heralded and decorated composers of our time.
Marvin Hamlisch is one of the colossal titans of entertainment. He has won four Emmys, four Grammys, three Golden Globes, three Oscars, one Pulitzer Prize, and one Tony, for his stellar musical achievements for stage, screen, and studio.
Earlier this year, Hamlisch penned the delightfully charming score to Steven Soderbergh's corporate espionage comedy, THE INFORMANT! (2009), which currently reins as one of my favorite scores of 2009.
To listen to Hamlisch's music solely on its own would defraud you of experiencing the complete brilliance of this score. Yes, the music is charming, witty, colorful, and memorable, but it's its use within the film to elevate an entire unique perspective not wholly expressed in the visuals or story that makes it so damn impressive. This is a score where the approach taken by the composer is as every bit as accomplished as the notes on the page. It is this level of acute narrative sensitivity that makes Marvin Hamlisch not just a musician, but a filmmaker.
I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Marvin about his experience working on THE INFORMANT! and how he pursued and captured its iconic sound. Our conversation was as delightful as his music and so without further ado, I bring you the maestro of stage and screen himself…Marvin Hamlisch.
ScoreKeeper: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I want to start at the beginning of your involvement with THE INFORMANT!. You have been away from film scoring for nearly a decade now…I'm curious, when you got the call from Soderbergh to score this film, what went through your mind?
Marvin Hamlisch: Well, if you get a call from Steven Soderbergh, you know you are at least going to be working with a great director. That was one of the major enticements. He had heard some music that I had done years ago for a film called BANANAS (1971), a Woody Allen film with a very compelling score. He wanted to have that same energy and fun going on in THE INFORMANT!. We had a lovely time discussing it. Then I saw the film and we sat down and talked about it. What was wonderful was he allowed me to do my thing. He allows you to do what you want to do, even though he’s giving you these great parameters.
SK: Your score has such a unique sound which adds a whole entire layer to the subtext of the narrative. What provoked such an idiosyncratic approach?
MV: The key to the score for me was the choice of "how am I going to do this film?". Soderbergh told me that he wanted people to hear it and know this was a funny film. In the first couple of weeks when I tried to score it the "normal way," it didn't turn out very funny. Then one day I was walking around New York and I thought to myself, "Well, if the guy is bipolar, then what would that mean when he sees the world? It's totally different than the world he knows and what he is."
So I had to decide to make each score represent the person inside of him – the person that only he knows – but doesn't show off to the world. In that respect, he becomes "Mr. Cool-and-Confident" and then becomes diseased and crazy. It gives the whole score a real way of doing things, because it’s really like the other character. If you are bipolar, there are two of you.
SK: I think so many composers nowadays are taking the safe approach when it comes to scoring films. Scoring THE INFORMANT! the way that you did is inspired and feels so right yet, I think, pretty risky. While you were composing the music, were you getting a strong sense that this was a gamble?
MH: I knew it was somewhat of a gamble but on the other hand about halfway into it, I certainly showed Steven what I was doing and he was very much for it. This is an off-the-wall film to begin with, so I think you always have to be on the same page. You can’t have some people doing one thing and the other people doing another.
You are right though. It definitely is more of a gamble of a score, but I do think the gamble paid off, because I think that it added a lot of humor to it and made it very clear what was really going on.
SK: It adds a completely new layer. It is there in the visuals and the story but far less than the music ultimately expresses.
MH: That’s what I was trying to do. That’s all I could do.
SK: It amazes me how obvious it is that so many other composers would probably have taken a safer or more status quo approach.
MH: I can tell you one thing…originally I began it very much in a passive mood. Every composer on any film is defined entirely by the film and finding the key that fits the door to that film. It's very difficult to find that key. It's what you do. That's the craft. Finding the key to get in is really what it's all about. Once I discovered this whole bipolar theme and felt very secure about it, then I could really have a ball with it. I could really have fun.
SK: Even though you have not scored a film in some time, you stay impressively busy. How did you manage the schedule? I know you are doing a lot of conducting these days. Did that get in the way of your composing duties?
MH: That’s a good question because people always think that, “There goes the whole day,” and that’s really not true. In today’s world, the fact that the films are on DVD allows you to carry a film anywhere. It happened that at the time I did this film. I wasn't that busy. I work in my own apartment for the flexibility of when I want to work. I can work at two o'clock in the morning or two o'clock in the afternoon. I'm a very quick writer once I'm in. Once I'm in…I'm in!
The first two weeks my wife got nervous and said, “You haven’t put anything on paper.” I said, “That might be true, but I know what I’m not putting on the paper.” It helps to know what I'm not doing. Once I knew what I was going to do, it moved very fast.
SK: Once you discovered the "key" to your score being the bipolar condition of the lead character, how quickly did the music then go from that point to the point where we hear it in the film?
MH: Very quick. It took me four to five weeks to write it and then we had to wait for a while, because I didn’t want to record the music without Soderbergh in the room. We had to wait a little while for him to be ready and then when he got ready we were all like, “Here we go,” you know what I mean? It was basically four to five weeks once I was first hooked up.
SK: How much did you lean on Soderbergh for creative guidance? Was he passive or more active in the process? How much did you have to depend on him for his collaborative skills?
MH: Look at this way…I didn’t play him every song before we got to the studio. I played him a few pieces to give him the sense of what it was, “This is where I’m going with this.” The reason I like having a director in the studio is because it’s so much easier to change anything with live musicians in the studio as opposed to either having to do it over or having to try to edit it. It’s much more difficult that way then obviously working with live musicians and going “Okay guys, take out part nineteen, here we go.”
That is the way I prefer to write. I like to have the director in the room when we do it. Steven Soderbergh as you know, is very big on music and what music can do. I think one of the things that a lot of directors don’t know is that music can in fact advance if you allow it to as opposed to just being there.
SK: Tell me a little bit about the instrumentation. I love your instrument choices for this score and if I've said it once, I've said a hundred times, "What film music needs is more bari sax!" God bless you for using it in this score. [Both Laugh]
What inspired you to choose the instruments that you used to achieve the right balance of colors that you were looking for?
MH: In this score, what I wanted to have happen was a hodgepodge of different orchestrations and styles. You had to accept the fact that we were on a very tight budget. We weren’t going to have a huge orchestra, but we were going to have a lot of people with different types of sounds. What I tried to do was give it a slightly different sound. We have sax. We have a whistler. We have a kazoo player. We have the organs with the rotary speaker…I mean, you haven’t heard that in thirty years!
SK: Yeah. [Laughs]
MH: That was a very specific choice. The way this came about was as I was writing the music, I would say, “Okay, now what would be the most interesting thing to have this play?” It wasn’t just always the same band, you know what I mean? It was a mixture of stuff.
One of the things that I am most proud of in the score is the fact that when it opens – I wrote what I call my misdirection cue – you would think “Oh, we are going to have a real melodrama here.” When they have the scene with the title and the tape recorder you think, “Oh my God, this is going to be one of those films…Here we go…”
Then the next piece of music is for this scene where he’s walking out and everything is fine and dandy. Those scenes where one follows the other is what allows me to do whatever I want to do after that. We are locking up the hodgepodge, you know?
SK: Exactly! I noticed that right away. The music is already going to be a surprise, so you feed audience expectations from the beginning and then have fun yanking it out from underneath them. Then you're free to do whatever you want the rest of the way.
MH: When you see a tape recorder and you see it’s called THE INFORMANT!, you would think, “Oh my God…” and the next thing you know, “Woops, wrong!”
SK: To my ears your score sounds completely written out. Were there any improvisatory aspects to the music?
MH: Not too much. Everything was pretty well written out. It was all written out. I don’t recall letting somebody really go loose and crazy. No, I don’t think so.
SK: Did you have to hire a kazoo player? Where do you find a kazoo player?
MH: It’s very simple actually. You don’t really have to have a kazoo player. What you have to do is blow into the kazoo the note that you want at the pitch you want it. It’s like whistling.
SK: Yeah. I was just curious if you had to hire somebody special for that.
MH: No, I just picked the guys and said, “You, come here.” Any musician can do that.
SK: You are highly regarded for fusing popular music, Broadway, and classical styles into your own unique brand of music. When I first heard your score for THE INFORMANT!, it sounded like it fit right into that style. Was this a natural expression of your musical vocabulary or were you finding that you were exploring some new territories?
MH: No, this felt very natural to me. I’m always creating similar stuff to what I have grown up with, you know what I mean?
MH: We are always exploratory but this was not about the music notes. This was about music choices and that's where I thought I did a great job. I don't think there are too many people around that would have done it this way. I don't think there are too many directors who would say, "Okay, let's go with this."
SK: Yes, definitely. I think Soderbergh gets a lot of credit for having the courage to encourage you to do that.
MH: Absolutely. No doubt.
SK: Would you elaborate on the individual themes you constructed for the film and how they function into the framework of the narrative?
MH: There are a couple of themes in the film. There’s the "happy-go-lucky" theme which recurs about three or four times. Then there’s the theme that I used for his childhood and his recollections of home life.
To be honest with you, I didn’t want this film to sound like different variations. The way I look at it, if you really want to know very simply is this…I thought of his brain as a collection of sub-brains. If you play music with this brain, a CD comes up and different CDs come up at different times and all I am doing is breaking this into twelve different CDs. On the old machines you would push random, remember? I didn't want the score to seem too structured. I didn’t want that, because I knew that that would be, again, not his character. This guy is flying by the seat of his pants and is making decisions literally like a speeding bullet.
The only other thing that I wanted to make sure of with the score was to keep it very frothy and light and up. I wanted it to be short…The one thing that scores can do for most films is give it a pace and a rhythm. That was something I definitively wanted to do.
Then, of course, I was blessed with the wonderful title that (Alan and Marilyn) Bergman came up with called "Trust Me." I felt that was a homerun!
SK: You've worked with the Bergman's on a number of occasions. Your collaborative relationship with them has led to some of the most iconic songs in cinematic history. Was this collaborative experience any different than those of the past?
MH: The reason I chose them on this one was very simple. They are very politically astute and I knew that the song had to be funny. I knew the film would turn out the way it would turn out. They are very aware. So I thought that they would be really great. They have a great line in the song that says, “I’m having so much fun spending other people’s money,” which works very much with what is going on in the world right now, you know? They seemed like the perfect choice.
SK: It's been a while since you scored a film. Did it feel good to be doing that again?
MH: It felt great! I’m hoping to do more. It was really fun.
SK: Is there anything on the horizon?
MH: Nothing specific. There’s something that’s been around for about a year.
SK: What have you been keeping busy with these past few years?
MH: It’s been mostly conducting. Right now I’m writing a show that hopefully will take about a year to complete. That should be available in 2011. I have six orchestras as a Pops director, so I’ve been busy enough.
SK: I want to get a little philosophical with you here on my last two questions. I don’t know if you saw it, but the respected film music journalist Jon Burlingame wrote a watershed article yesterday in Variety where he was talking about the rampant downward spiral of film music appreciation amongst filmmakers in Hollywood. Did you happen to read that?
MH: I have not read it yet because I literally just went to Washington and my Variety is sitting in New York.
SK: It’s a stellar article.
MH: I will tell you one thing about that and it will be a long answer sorry, but…
SK: That’s okay. Feel free…
MH: If you look at film music and you grasp it for a second you'll notice we went through this period early on where if you weren’t aware of it, then it's doing its job. That was the first wave.
Then we went through a period where all of a sudden the studios found out that there’s money to be made and it started with things like…Oh, I remember the impact from a song like "Everybody's Talking" from MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) or "Mrs. Robinson" from THE GRADUATE (1967). All of a sudden you had "the song" for a film. Everybody had a song in a film and the albums sold like wild fire.
Then all of a sudden there’s this new wave. There are so many people out there. There used to be in the old years like five or six, now there’s 147, you know? With 147 probably what has happened is a lot of new directors want music to always be more…not so much work melodically, but to act as a kind of sound. A lot of the composers that I know call it drones because of all of the electronics that you can do now. These drones are like a carpet that you would move upon, but no one knows what color the carpet is. It’s just there and you tread on it and you don’t care.
Where we are right now, I believe that directors need to see that, “You are not quite getting your movie without composers,"…but you have got to have a director who wants that. If they don’t want it, you are not going to write it in spite of them.
As you know, what happens with everything, the minute one film will come out, particularly if it’s a big tearjerker and you have a great theme, you will get twenty-seven that follow it. It’s just a question of finding that one right now. It’s the same thing with movie musicals. Once CHICAGO (2002) happened, the others line up, but until that happens, you kind of stick where you are.
It’s hard because I happen to be a big lover of melody…You wouldn’t impose a piece of music because you think it’s a good theme. The movie has to be right for it, you know? We haven’t had that many of those kinds of movies lately so we have to wait. When you have movies that are about vampires or the end of the world or about Transformers, obviously you are not going to play “From Here to Eternity.” A lot of things have to change in order for a composer to come in and be able to write that music that makes people want to say “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful.”
SK: And that segues beautifully into the last question that I have for you today…What is the key to composing a good melody?
MH: That is a good question. I’ll tell you what the key is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be a well-known melody. Try to write something that on one hand is not too difficult, but not dull.
Here’s the problem with all of these things…If you, as the public, don’t like it, it will die. I can write a melody that I think is pretty God-awful, but it could be a hit and I’ll go, “Wow, isn’t that wonderful?”
I once asked Richard Rodgers why was it that he thought that most of the things he wrote were a hit and he said, “I guess my taste and the taste of millions of other people are the same.” That’s the trick. The trick is to figure out something that the composer likes, but somehow or another the people like it at the same time. That is the secret.
SK: Very cool, Marvin. I want thank you for your time. You have been very generous. I’m very excited to have had the chance to speak with you. Keep up the great work. I would love to see you do more film work in the future.
MH: It was my pleasure. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to thank Marvin Hamlisch for the generous offering of his time. I'd also like to thank Melissa McNeil of Costa Communications for making this interview possible.
The score for THE INFORMANT! is available on New Line Records and also as a digital download on iTunes.
To visit the official web site of Marvin Hamlisch, click HERE.
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Dec. 19, 2009, 3:04 p.m. CST
by Skyway Moaters
I actually had time to read this before posting FRIST! erm I'm probably not frist anymore. Oh well, MH ROCKS!
Dec. 19, 2009, 9:04 p.m. CST
Awesome interview, SK- and thanks to Mr. Hamlisch for sharing his thoughts with us.
Dec. 19, 2009, 10:06 p.m. CST
by Nasty In The Pasty
[insert Pod Person shriek here]
Dec. 20, 2009, 12:06 a.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 12:11 a.m. CST
Take it back, you damned dirty ape! :)
Dec. 20, 2009, 12:24 a.m. CST
Boy, I sure wasn't expecting that!!
Dec. 20, 2009, 12:29 a.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 8:29 a.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
Hey Scorekeeper, there's a gag in "Role Models" where it is insinuated that Christopher Mintz-Plasse looks just like Marvin Hamlisch. Any truth to this? Inquiring minds want to know.
Dec. 20, 2009, 1:30 p.m. CST
That's just awful.
Dec. 20, 2009, 1:31 p.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 1:32 p.m. CST
I hope the movie will be dedicated to her.
Dec. 20, 2009, 1:37 p.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 1:50 p.m. CST
R.I.P. Britney. Look forward to Expedables.
Dec. 20, 2009, 1:58 p.m. CST
I smells a rat
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:16 p.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:34 p.m. CST
Fuck. So sorry to hear about that lovely, young women's death. I always had high hopes she'd get to the mainstream/big time. Great actress. I'll miss her. R.I.P. XXXXX
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:40 p.m. CST
Come on! get on the ball! Ms. Murphy Deserves a headline and eulogy! R.I.P Ms. Murphy. Grim reaper is really harsh on Hollywood this year!
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:45 p.m. CST
I love this site, but is anyone gonna do a piece about Brittany? I'm with thecheesegrommit on this one. Come on, Please break your silence and give that lovely young lady the wright up she desearves.. xxx
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:48 p.m. CST
Too bad about this site, stuck in time and slow on the News. Used to be Relevant. Kinda depressing.
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:49 p.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:52 p.m. CST
Zoidberg Im a 37 year old man Who just had a heart attack and it was all genetics. No reason to automaticly assume something darker. I hope not at least.
Dec. 20, 2009, 2:58 p.m. CST
Stallone thought that about her character in the movie and she was ditched from the film or pardon the pun she deemed to be expendable. and was expended.
Dec. 20, 2009, 3:04 p.m. CST
by Bruce T Shark
as one of the only peopleto laugh at that gag in role models, I can confirm he does indeed look like marvin.
Dec. 20, 2009, 3:18 p.m. CST
And please, for once, show an extra ounce of respect by avoiding stupid spelling errors like "wright up." But, then again, that statement in and of itself is likely disrespectful in its context. This truly is sad. I've followed her for years - she voiced the niece on "King of the Hill," among other things, and made for a convincing and fairly believable presence in the otherwise somewhat stale and surprisingly cliched and run-of-the-mill Eminem vanity project "8 Mile." As for the cause of the cardiac arrest, speculation will likely be drugs, but that's not the only thing that could cause it. She looks rail thin in the most recent photo that sites are posting and conditions such as bulemia and malnutrition - or just being severely under-weight - can put as much strain on the heart as obesity and drugs, especially if there's some genetic predisposition to heart problems. So, yeah... Murphy, please - and make it a good WRITE up that focuses more on her life and accomplishments than the death and the usual speculation (often misinformed or uninformed - as mine is just as likely to be) that comes with these things. I could care less about any Matt Damon comedy anyway - odds are it's politically bent one way or the other (which is giving it the benefit of the doubt by not assuming the usual) and Hollywood hasn't had a new take on political satire since the 70's.
Dec. 20, 2009, 3:23 p.m. CST
I forgive you for having the worst lines in Sin City.
Dec. 20, 2009, 3:24 p.m. CST
let's crack some jokes and be internet pussies! Yes, Harry, PLEASE make a thread tribute so I can puke my lunch allover my computer screen at the comments that will endure...
Dec. 20, 2009, 3:26 p.m. CST
Dec. 20, 2009, 8:44 p.m. CST
I say,"Who the fuck is Marvin Hamlisch?" funny shit.
Dec. 21, 2009, 1:40 a.m. CST
Dec. 21, 2009, 2:20 a.m. CST
Dec. 21, 2009, 6:16 a.m. CST
I'm sorry to hear that (really). I doubt she had too much in the way of genetic risk factors with obesity, diabetes, dyslipidemia, etc. But ya never know until the autopsy.
Dec. 21, 2009, 6:49 p.m. CST
Apparently she did have diabetes, and anorexia can put as much strain on the heart as obesity.
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