A Conversation with Arthur B. Rubinstein by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. LarsonPreview (opens in a new window)
With the release of BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES, Arthur B. Rubinstein suddenly became a force to be reckoned with in the film music world. Previously having scored a handful of low-budget movies that came and went without much ado, Rubinstein rapidly established himself in 1983 when he scored these two popular releases, both for director John Badham. The success of the films, and the popularity of their music, led to some acclaim for Rubinstein and more lucrative scoring assignments. Interviewed shortly after the release of BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES, Rubinstein discussed his beginnings in film music and, in particular, his intentions on scoring these two blockbusters.
How did you get started in the film music field?
It didn’t begin with film, really. It began with theatre. Before I even touched in piece of film as a composer I had written scores for fifty or sixty stage productions. I’d composed for eight or nine of the Shakespeare plays, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and a whole slew of Tennessee Williams plays, plays from the Comedia Del Arte (the 16th Century Italian theatre), plays by Jean Anouilh the French writer, just a whole gamut of incidental music for the theatre.
It’s the kind of training ground that not many film composers have had. It starts you with certain kinds of constrictions, to begin with, because music in the theatre is not approached in the same way as music in films. First of all, because of the kind of instrumentation that you’re limited to, and also because you’re not dealing as much with the technical end of making music, you’re dealing simply with dramatics, with character delineation in music. You don’t have to provide that kind of musical glue around a screen that you often do in writing film music. It’s really down to essentials. That was, really, my beginnings as a film composer.
Was that here in California or in New York?
In New York, and also in San Francisco with the American Conservatory Theatre, where I was the first resident composer. Then I happened into a situation wherein David Susskind’s Company, Talent Associates, was the producer company for The HALLMARK HALL OF FAME productions, and they needed music for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, The Price, with George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, so I wrote the music for this. It was scored for two instruments, piano and harp, and was fairly effective in its sparseness and in its haunting kind of nature.
After that, during the next year or two, I did four more productions for Hallmark, and then I started writing a few more television things, all out of New York at this time. It really wasn’t until 1976, when I came to Los Angeles as the musical director for the L.A. Company on A Chorus Line, that I even came near film.
Joseph Jacoby, a producer-director from New York, had come out to Los Angeles with a film in hand, and he needed to find a “Hollywood” composer. He went to several of the agencies here, and went through a whole roster of composers, and the agent who I’d just recently secured out here was trying to convince him that she had this composer who is sort of unique. He said “yeah, but I want somebody from Hollywood, I want a Hollywood name.” Finally he was about to leave town with no Hollywood composer signed, and she convinced him to hear a tape of my music, which he loved. So I scored his film, called THE GREAT BANK HOAX, which was actually a rather good film which never quite got its due. It was a Warner Bros. release with Burgess Meredith, Ned Beatty and Richard Basehart, a very charming film which had a lot of chic, an almost European flavor to it, and the score very much represented that. The score, in many places, was almost kind of Kurt Weillian. That was the first film I did but unfortunately after that I had to go back to New York for a year or so before I came back out here and started doing some more television and movies-of-the-week. At that point I had done one other film, a little thing of not terribly great importance called ON THE RIGHT TRACK, with Gary Coleman. It was done during the musicians’ strike in Los Angeles and therefore the music was recorded in London, but I did not go to record it, personally, and the score was in many ways loused up.
Now, long before this when I was a student at Yale, I had met John Badham and we were great buddies back then, and had become separated by time. When I did come out here he was in the midst of doing his first film, BINGO LONG AND THE TRAVELING ALL-STARS, and after that he did SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and DRACULA, and for whatever reasons it was not propitious at that point in my career for him to engage me at that point in his career, to write music for him.
Then along came WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?, and we both sensed that it was the right film for me, so I scored it. It was a very tough film, and in many ways a very successful and haunting and penetrating film. Then BLUE THUNDER came up which John clearly did not want me to score; he and the powers that be at Columbia thought they wanted Giorgio Moroder, and then they thought they wanted Tangerine Dream.
In the interim I happened to be involved with a silly television show, it never really went to series although they did five or six episodes, called THE PHOENIX. It was produced by a dear friend of mine. Mark Carliner, and he said “we want something like CHARIOTS OF FIRE.” It’s interesting that every year there is one film that every producer feels he wants to either temp track his film with, or in one way or another reproduce or somehow bring the magic of that one piece of music to his production! At this particular moment it was CHARIOTS OF FIRE (even though we all know the theme to CHARIOTS is not played on a synthesizer but on a piano). So I did THE PHOENIX, which was totally synthesized, and at the point where I heard from my agent that Columbia was now talking to Tangerine Dream about doing BLUE THUNDER, I said “this is very silly, what they need is a composer!” I gave John Badham a tape of the stuff I had done for THE PHOENIX and I said “I think you should listen to this, either today or tomorrow or next week or next year, but you should listen to it.” Well, he did and he realized, I think to his credit, that BLUE THUNDER, although it seemed to call for some use of synthesis, also did require the compositional know-how that went beyond what Giorgio Moroder or Tangerine Dream and those people do.
When I looked at the film, though, they had temp-tracked it (which as I’m sure you know is standard procedure) with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK! I had gone into the thing thinking, “okay, what they want is synthesis,” and then I see this thing which is temp-tracked with RAIDERS, which couldn’t be further from what they had seemed to be looking for! When I commented about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (which by this point had become the thing that everybody was temp-tracking), they said “Oh no, we don’t really want that, we just put that in for fun!” Now, you know that when somebody does that, there is some sort of a desire to have something like that in there. Nobody puts a piece of temp music in for “fun.” The heads of the studio and whoever are going to be seeing that, so somebody was serious about that element being in the score, however you define “that element” – the heroic or symphonic or whatever.
Let me back track a second. The first thing that I recognized about the film was that there was no room for music. Everybody was saying “we don’t really need music for this film, we don’t know why John has been going after Moroder and all these people.” I sensed that there were two factions on the film. There were those people who were very much involved in the technical end of it, who saw it as a hard-hitting, almost documentary, picture. And I sensed that John Badham, even though he has developed quite a proficiency and a brilliance in the handling of those kinds of technical elements, really is a quiet romantic, and something else was required in this film. It seemed to me that what the music required was, somehow or another, to bring size to the dramatic elements, an almost romantic size to the character of Murphy [Roy Scheider]. So the first bit of business for me was to write a theme that had heroics to it, but yet was not RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Something that had a contemporary sensibility to it, and one that could also make musical and dramatic sense when played on synthesizers. It had to have that setting and yet would also make sense if played by brasses. I recognized that this was not a film that could take simply a romantic score. There had to be a stranger kind of cohesion to the music; this may sound like a paradox but the music had to almost have a documentary feeling to it.
The thematic material in BLUE THUNDER is absolutely simple. The entire score, as a matter of fact, is based on just two pieces of music, and every single note in that film is traced to either the Murphy Theme or the Blue Thunder Theme, which is even simpler than the Murphy Theme. It’s just two notes, really, it goes BUH-BUH-baaa, Duh Duh-da-da-daaa. What is complicated is the moment to moment working out of rhythms and tempos and sounds that would, somehow or another, almost feel at one with the helicopters, with the mechanics and with the electronics and all that. People who’ve seen BLUE THUNDER have said to me, “I wish there was more music.” In fact, there is close to an hour of music in the film, but what happens, and intentionally so, is that there are stretches where the sound of the synthesizer, and even the sounds of synthesizers with a certain amount of brass mixed in, so match (or at least you perceive them as matching) what happens with the helicopters, that you’re not aware of it.
One of the first things I noticed was how the bass line of the synthesizers picked up the droning whirr of the helicopter rotor.
That’s right. It has nothing to do with the enjoyment or the exuberance of watching the film, but the whole score was really conceived that way. There is, for instance, the moment when Cochrane [Malcolm McDowell] is first testing Murphy, and the copter starts to go down; there is a rhythmic meter in the helicopter rotor that I slowed down to find out what kind rhythm it really was. So in the music, there’s a pulse going along as the helicopter goes down that is timed to that meter. It’s a very subliminal thing – you’re talking about a musical tempo that may be five times slower but is in sync with an overall tempo. Now, this is tricky, it’s a certain amount of technical jerking-off, except that I know that there is something about the inner ear and the inner pulse which is affected by that kind of thing. It’s all very subliminal, and I don’t mean to imply that I have found some sort of mystical trick to getting pulses going in the theater, that’s bullshit. But that is an approach that I used. I was confronted with a lot of noise to deal with, so I tried consciously to break down what that noise was, and to fit in with it. There are also other elements in the score, elements that are sort of sardonic that I like, and there are moments, obviously, where it’s pure heroism. I must say it was quite thrilling the first time I saw the completed film.
The thematic material in BLUE THUNDER is absolutely simple. What is complicated is the moment working out of rhythms and tempos and sounds that would, somehow or other, almost feel at one with the helicopters.
Would you describe the way you used the interplay of the two themes, the Murphy Theme and the Blue Thunder Theme, in a symbolic or a dramatic way throughout the score?
They’re constantly playing off each other. Let me give you a specific example. At a certain point in the film, right toward the end, we take the element that is supposed to be the element of great menace and danger, which is Blue Thunder, and we have to turn it into something heroic, because now Murphy has it and is trying to get the bad guy. It’s a very tricky thing that you demand the audience to accept, because all along you’re saying “Holy Shit, this thing is terrible!” So the moment where Murphy takes off in Blue Thunder, it is purely his theme. Then, during the final chase when Murphy is finally getting behind Cochrane, it’s the most heroic moment of the score and the two themes merge. The Blue Thunder Theme is there with its four descending notes, and the strings are going, and under it you get Murphy’s Theme from six French horns and three synthesizers, just as he is pulling up and is doing the flip in the helicopter. It’s a very graphic pulling together of those two elements.
On the BLUE THUNDER soundtrack album, John Badham describes some unusual musical effects used, such as the microphone in the empty bottle beneath the grand piano. Can you comment about this sort of technique and how it was used in the film.
That idea came from a sound that I wanted. I was working at a synthesizer studio in Los Angeles called Sound Arts. and I wanted the sound of the piano to be able to go through a phase-shifter. The engineer, whose name is Jim Cypherd, said that was simple enough, so we tried it but it wasn’t really what I wanted. I needed more of a strange echoey sound, a quality I had in my mind. We had this Sparklets water bottle sitting around, and I said “it would be terrific if the sound that came out had just a strange reverb to it,” and then it was Jim Cypherd who said, “Hey, why don’t we put the mike in the bottle?” So that’s what we did. I sounds a lot more high-falootin’ than it really is. What happens when the piano is mixed this way is that you can put it with brasses, or a moog synthesizer, or you can put it with anything, and all of the sudden it just fattens up everything that’s going on. For instance, if you have the synthesizer sound and you want to warm it up or just give it a rich middle without adding orchestra, that’s exactly what will happen with this device.
Another parenthetical question relating to the soundtrack album – John Badham refers to “secret encoded messages” heard if the record is played backwards. Can you comment on what this is all about?
(laughs): That is John Badham having fun. That’s all it is! There are no secret encoded messages, I promise! But don’t tell anybody, they’ll wear out a lot of records trying to find out!
Yeah, I’ll bet the backward masking folks will have a lot of fun with that.
(laughing): No, it was just John being a little bit cryptic.
How much input did John Badham have on the music for BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES?
First of all, John and I have known each other for a long time, and usually our discussions about the score start on a terribly high intellectual plane and finally we both say, “Shit, we can’t talk about this anymore, I have to sit down and start writing some music.” On BLUE THUNDER, for example, the main input that I got from John was when I first sat down and worked on a theme for Murphy, and we did some synthesis on it and John heard it and hated it. The first theme that I had was somewhat more intellectual than the final theme turned out to be, it had sort of a bent, almost neurotic kind of blues feeling to it. What John really wanted, and I think rightly so, was a theme that, although it was contemporary, told you something about Murphy and was nevertheless heroic. John wanted to get away from the whole idea that this is a neurotic guy who has these flashbacks about Vietnam. He simply wanted the score to help the audience go with the picture and with the character, and that’s indeed what happened with the theme. It invites the audience to participate and, because of its nature, to respond in an emotional way.
John and I have done three films together, and he says he knows nothing about music. I’ve told him on several occasions that couldn’t be further from the truth, because he knows a lot about music; what John doesn’t to bother with are details of how a cue should work, where it should go, and I guess John does trust my intelligence in the way I look at a scene, in the way I perceive the basic elements of music and how they should work. He generally leaves me to myself and says “I don’t want to talk about it, I’ll hear it with the orchestra.” Which can be a little scary! But I know the way his mind works, what he is trying to do with a film at whatever given moment, and that is almost as much of a basis for starting to work on the score for a film as anything.
How large of an orchestra did you use in BLUE THUNDER?
The largest orchestra there was about 30-35.
Was it fairly standard, with the addition of synthesizers, or did you emphasis any specific sections?
The score was very complicated, and it was done in four stages. The first thing I worked with was the computer synthesizer, which is called the Synclavier II, and once the operators had played the music I had given them and we had dubbed the information that was on floppy disc onto 24-track, I took it into this other studio, Sound Arts. There I added other synthesized elements by myself, sometimes taking away elements from the Synclavier and replacing them with synthesizers, sometimes adding that piano sound, and getting the fully synthesized tracks that I wanted. Then I would listen and decide which cues required orchestra, and I would add simply brass, or brass with percussion, a few cues with just percussion, one or two with strings, percussion and synthesizer, and then maybe two that had strings, brass and percussion added to the synthesizer. It was fairly complicated.
With WAR GAMES, I didn’t see David as a charming, misunderstood kid at all. I saw him as being very much involved with this impudence. I would say that David’s music has a slightly more playful and magical quality than the computers but it is still drawn from the same idea that there is impudence at foot here.
What was your basic approach to scoring WARGAMES?
WARGAMES was kind of a dilemma, because as a film it does several different things. There are a lot of different kinds of colors in there. I mean, for example, there’s a little bit of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in it, there’s a little bit of Disney, there’s little bits of a lot of things in it. Before I was hired for the film, as a sort of pro-forma approach to the film business, they were inquiring early on about certain composers, and what I heard was that they were thinking about John Williams or Marvin Hamlisch, which gave me great chuckles. As I said to John, it sounds like somebody can’t decide between going on vacation to Miami Beach or the Grand Tetons! But it produced that same dilemma that I discussed with BLUE THUNDER. If somebody is making inquiries that are that dissimilar, then indeed they’re not quite sure what it is they’re looking for.
My approach to the film was to decide, first of all, how I felt about the WOPR computer and Joshua. I felt there was something very Faustian about that whole element, something larger than life, somewhat evil, somewhat cynical, but also kind of humorous in terms of dark humor, and yet an element that I didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with. Again we’re dealing with a film that has so many sound effects and all that – I told John when we finished WARGAMES that I hope the next picture I do with him would be a 16th Century costumed romance! I don’t want to deal with any computers or any helicopters for a while! It does pose a problem. You have to decide that either you’re going to write a score and hope it’ll show through the sound effects, or you’re going to write a score that will be rich unto its own but will somehow complement all that other sound.
In the case of WARGAMES, what I consider to be the real substance of the musical score – which is all the stuff that happens in the War Room, with the WOPR computer, with David sensing the danger and all that – does not have very much of a thematic element at all. Like the scene where David is locked in the infirmary and is trying to find a way out and he finally discovers the tape recorder and manages to beep the door open, there’s a music there that has no theme whatsoever, but represents a romantic spirit about David [Matthew Broderick] and is sort of playful. It is a bit like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in a way, it has that element to it, classical and yet fun. Earlier, after he sees the news broadcast about what had happened and he runs upstairs and starts to hide all the papers pertaining to Joshua, there’s this kind of symphonic flurry that is in no way contemporary, it is definitely symphonic and almost classical, and sort of devilish.
I guess that’s the key word to most of the score, that there is a devilish quality to the whole thing, because that’s how I perceived both David and the WOPR. They’re both impudent and impish in their own way. I decided that the computer is a character, a malevolent one, and proceeded from there. Throughout the score whenever the computer is shown there is this sort of malevolent but yet sardonic treatment. I didn’t see David as a charming, misunderstood kid at all, I saw him as being very much involved with this impudence. I would say that David’s music, if you could call it that because it is rarely stated as such, has a slightly more playful and magical quality but it is still drawn from the same idea that there is impudence at foot here.
An impression that struck me about this is that you had a theme for the military, that drum motif first heard in the main title and the first Norad sequence, a kind of quirky electronic motif associated with David, and that very melodious theme which I associated with the human element, first heard on the ferry ride over to the Oregon island. It was interesting to me that with those three elements comprised in the score, the militaristic, the electronic and the human, you were thus able to touch musically on each of those elements in the film. And, at the very end, the electronic and human motifs seem to merge while the military motif disappears.
That is an accurate observation. I didn’t sit down and plan that, but working on the film, reel by reel, that’s just what developed. As a matter of fact, that theme you hear on the ferry and later when they’re on the waterfront looking for a boat, and finally during the end credits, that was supposed to be a song, called “Edge of the World,” by inference an anti-nuclear song, which is on the soundtrack album. At one point there was going to be a song by Crosby Stills & Nash and there was going to be one by Men At Work. But [production executive] Frank Yablans found out and said “there are no songs with words in my picture!” So originally the scene on the ferry, that whole element was a song, which did very much state the human element of all this. What the song was about, lyrically, was “we’re standing on the edge of the world and we don’t even know it,” so that human element which finally does take over the film, which I think it should, was very much by design.
When we knew we weren’t going to use the lyrics, I decided to have that theme played on the harmonica. I wouldn’t have originally done that, but in trying to find some way to separate that musical element from everything else in the score and in trying to find a sound that instantaneously described a human feeling, I decided on the harmonica.
How large of an orchestra did you use in WARGAMES?
At its largest it was about 78.
How long were you given to compose each of these scores?
On BLUE THUNDER I had a lot of time, because it was so complicated. I took about seven weeks on it. WARGAMES was originally supposed to be released the end of July , and then Frank Yablans came in and said “we’re releasing it June 3rd”, so everybody’s schedule was compressed. I had barely four weeks on that.
Both of these films are major, big-budget summer movies which are giving your work a lot more exposure that it’s had in the past. What do you hope their popularity will have on your career?
I guess what I really would hope for is that I am, number one, not confused with either John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, who are both terribly gifted men, or anybody else. I was told about a very nice thing that happened last week, from friends of mine who had gone to see WARGAMES in New York, and told me that when the music credit came on there was applause. I guess that can be attributed to people having seen BLUE THUNDER and liked that, I don’t know. But it was very flattering to think that there could be that kind of response. That’s what I really hope for, that these films or any film I do will be one more opportunity to create my own persona as a composer. That’s a very difficult thing to do, these days.
Especially when everybody wants something that sounds like John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith.
Exactly. I am terribly aware that producers have got it into their minds that they want a certain kind of music. My concern is that, one day, and it has already happened in a couple of cases, is that what they will be asking other composers for is an Arthur B. Rubinstein: score!