An Interview with Robert Folk by Philippe Blumenthal
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.13/No.50/1994
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
I’ve been an admirer of Robert Folk’s music ever since I became aware of his music, sometime in 1991. He is one of the most gifted composers working in Hollywood today, always writing in an orchestral style, with a definite instinct for composing great themes. He deserves to get more big assignments. The double CD set ‘Selected Suites’ was a godsend, as very little of his work has been preserved on record. When I was in California last March, Robert Folk invited me to his wonderfully located home on the Pacific coast where the fallowing interview took place.
How did you become a film composer?
I was initially interested in music as a songwriter, that was my first interest in life, which goes back to maybe the age of ten or twelve. My goal was to work in popular music as a songwriter. I worked with rock ‘n roll bands, travelling around the United States. Most of them were unknown bands, and at the age of 18 I got kind of bored with that and decided I would pursue a career of classical music and more contemporary, serious music. So I turned from Massachusetts, where I was born, to New York, with the intention of studying at the Juilliard School, which is considered the best school in the States by far. I guess I started in 1970 and did a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and then a PhD. Then I ended up teaching on a faculty for a while.
While I was teaching there, a friend of mine introduced me to his father who is a young filmmaker; he asked me to score a documentary for him, a quite significant project. They sent me to London where they hired the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. For me it was quite a thrill, because I have not been able to get that kind of access to orchestras — as a professor or a young teacher working in serious music, it was much more difficult to get access to world class orchestras in a situation like that. It was quite thrilling to me to end up in London with this orchestra and be able to record music of my own in a very spontaneous and quick fashion. I was more used to a serious music field, spending a year or so on a piece of music.
What was quite interesting for me was the ability to write music quickly, intended for a film… This was something I was not accustomed to and I really changed my entire direction again. I started thinking, “I really want to pursue a career in film music.” Maybe about a year later, I moved to Los Angeles with the intention to try and start up a career, which was around 1981. With that documentary in hand and some recordings of my serious music – a ballet, a string quartet, a first symphony, some things I had done at school (and recorded in New York) – with a handful of these tapes, I started looking around. Within four or five weeks I started getting some small independent movies.
The first film I came across out here was a movie called THE SLAYER, a horror film, also recorded in London with the National Philharmonic; then a few months later I did a film for 20th Century Fox, another very small film called SAVAGE HARVEST, and that I also recorded with the National Philharmonic. I guess the first studio film that I did was PURPLE HEARTS, which was a Ladd Company/Warner Bros. film. That picture led to POLICE ACADEMY, also Ladd / Warner Bros. And other films that resembled that genre, like BACHELOR PARTY for Fox. I happened to be typecast as the guy who does those movies for a while. I did a bunch of them, comedies with an orchestral score. Then I spent the next 5 or 6 years trying to do other kinds of movies, to get away from that…
The first one of those that really mattered to me was MILES FROM HOME with Richard Gere. This was I felt was a real dramatic picture of some importance. After doing that film things seemed to open up a little bit. I did films like TOY SOLDIERS, NEVER ENDING STORY II and some animated movies, starting with Don Bluth and then more recently a film that Richard (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?) Williams was involved in, THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Now I am working on another animated film called ROMEO AND JULIETTE. I guess I’ve done maybe 25 studio films.
How did you get TOY SOLDIERS?
A lot of Amblin people had been working on this film: Michael Kahn, Steven Spielberg’s editor for many years, music editor Ken Wannberg… There were half a dozen of these people involved and they were originally hoping that John Williams would score the film. But at the time he was working on HOOK and so he was unavailable. Michael Kahn and Ken Wannberg had temped some music of mine into the film. That helped the process. Also, I had worked with producer Mark Bug on CAN’T BUY ME LOVE, and he introduced me to Dan Petrie Jr. I think as a combination of that introduction and as a result of having used some of my music as a temp track, they decided that I would be suitable.
That film turned out to be very good for me. Even though the movie did not perform as well as expected at the box-office, the music has been used a lot for temp tracking purposes. In fact Spielberg had commented on the score, it had been used in some Amblin projects other than TOY SOLDIERS. It did actually come to his attention. And the same is true for a film I’m negotiating for at Fox now. The British editor Terry Rowlings had used TOY SOLDIERS as a temp track. So that score has benefited me in a number of ways. It’s actually a score that I like a lot.
The main theme reminds me of John Williams’ style…
No-one said, “Make it sound like John Williams!” But I think that between the director and myself, we both wanted a somewhat classical score, very thematic, and of course you have the military environment. So if you throw all these elements together, you get music that is in the same genre that John Williams is known for. But I wouldn’t say that I was trying to imitate him.
The Dublin Symphony Orchestra did a remarkably fine job on TOY SOLDIERS. How big was the orchestra?
I think there were 86 pieces and then we worked it down to maybe 50 or so. But yes, I’ve enjoyed Dublin. I’ve recorded there three times, I think, and I would rate them very high among the current places that are being recognized as film scoring centers. They are very musical people and really motivated, they enjoy playing film music.
You often use electronics in connection with the orchestra… What do you think of synthesizers in general?
I think they are a good tool. They add to the vocabulary that you have for sounds. They keep improving in offering a wider range of colors. I’m coming from an orchestral background. I’m not that fond of purely electronic music, unless the movie happens to really want it. There are certain films that I think benefit from an entirely electronic approach. But I tend to enjoy using synthesizers, to augment an orchestra or live musicians… I’ve done a number of small scores in an electronics studio, where I will use a few soloists, who are live musicians.
TREMORS finally got a CD release … I can’t help wondering what happened to your music credits… Ernest Troost got listed?
Right. I was in a dispute with Universal. It’s not really a disagreement, but the original composer – most of his music I had to replace. He had a very strong contract with the studio, just in terms of the use of his music. He must have had a very good lawyer, because the provision in his contract stated, that if any of his music were used, that he would have screen credit.
So I was asked, did I want a screen credit, and I really didn’t. I didn’t want a shared credit! So I simply did the film as a favor to the producer, Anne Gale Hurd (ALIENS) and didn’t take any credit on it, which is unfortunate, because I like the movie a lot and I like the score a lot…
Your music propels the film along…
Yeah… Anyway, these things happen. There are a lot of lawyers in Los Angeles (laughs) coming up with these clauses, you know. But I think they’re talking about making a sequel to TREMORS and I’ve had an occasional conversation with Ron Underwood, the director. So perhaps I will score that movie and I will get credit for it.
You’ve recorded a lot of scores in Europe, with a variety of orchestras. Is there any difference in recording in Europe and in the USA?
There are a lot of really great orchestras in Europe. There are also a number of really great orchestras here in the United States. There are two differences: one of them is artistic. The European orchestras are older, usually; they’ve been around for a longer time. They do have a different sound; soloists play differently, orchestras as an ensemble sound differently than here in the United States. I particularly like the London Symphony Orchestra and also three or four of the other London-based orchestras. I’ve worked with some German orchestras and in Dublin, and I’ve been to Paris. In a way they are more appropriate for certain classical gestures.
On the other hand, take an orchestra here in L.A. Technically, they’re very superb. Their reading is probably the best anywhere. They might be better suited to playing certain kinds of music, more rhythmic, sometimes more complex music, less traditional music. But any great orchestra, whether it’s European or American, you have to stand back and admire how professional they are and how well they play, because it’s challenging to play music for the first time that you’ve never seen before and make it sound really good, and to do it quickly and on schedule.
Knightsbridge, with a little help by Douglass Fake, released a double CD set (‘Selected Suites’) with over 150 minutes of music. How did that come about?
It really started as a result of a number of people – labels and collectors – always asking me, well, can I get MILES FROM HOME on CD, can I get POLICE ACADEMY, can I get this score, that score…
I’m not that well represented on CD, for a variety of reasons. Number one: I’ve never pursued the idea very much, and I think you have to pursue recordings if you want any – unless you have a long-standing career with a lot of international interest in your portfolio. So for a long time I did not pursue the idea of recordings.
Also, you have the re-use fee problems of Los Angeles recordings being cost prohibitive. Anyway, as a result of a number of people inquiring about these things, I just thought that it would be fun to get a collection, of, say, ten of my favorite scores and put them all under one title, so that they’d be easily accessible. So I decided to initiate the project along with a company called Knightsbridge, which I’m a member of (it’s a business group). They helped to fund the project. As you can see, it’s labelled as a promotional device, because there is music on the 2 CD set which is not cleared. For example TREMORS is an L.A. recording, as well as CAN’T BUY ME LOVE and POLICE ACADEMY. I think the rest of the recordings are cleared, because they were done as a sort of buy-outs with European orchestras.
I asked Doug Fake to help me, because he had done a couple of CD’s of mine, TOY SOLDIERS, BEASTMASTER 2. I felt that he’s always been very good with sequencing and with putting together suites that make for good listening. So I asked him to help me organize the project, which he did, and I think he did a really good job with it. Most people have responded very well to it.
What about ROCK-A-DOODLE, where’s the score album?
I came into that project very late, the songs had already been written and the soundtrack album deal had already been made before I even met Don Bluth, which is unfortunate, because the songs garnered most of the attention. Later we tried to organize a score album – Varese had committed to it and we had sequenced it, it was all digitally mastered. Everything was ready to go. It simply had to be sent to the manufacturer for the CD’s to be struck. But at the last moment the label that was releasing the songs stopped us, because they felt that we would be competing with their song album. So we offered to sell it to them, if they wanted to put both of them out, as was done for BATMAN for instance. But all their marketing strategy had pointed towards this one (song) album, it was too late. So somewhere is the master for that CD (Laughs). I guess Varese still has it, but I don’t know if it will come out or not.
You have composed music for a number of animation movies, mostly featuring large orchestral scores: A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK, THIEF AND THE COBBLER for example. What is the main difference in composing for animation movies and for live action films?
I think most composers would tell you that the animation is a nice showcase for music. Your music is featured most of the time. There’s a lot of detail, a lot of synchronisation points. Usually, at least for me, you’re able to write music of a more technical nature, more of a virtuoso sort of writing, because there’s a lot of energy and color and a lot of events that happen in animation – probably because most animation is directed toward younger people and there is a certain energy level, a certain exuberance in the subject matter. All these visual things lead a composer into writing music that is different from music you’d write for live action.
If you listen to an animated score, I think they all have these colors and textures and activity levels that you don’t find in the majority of feature films.
I enjoy animation, because you really get to write, you’re not just laying back there in the corner somewhere. So it’s kind of challenging, but fun.
What is it like to score sequel after sequel, like the POUCE ACADEMY films?
It’s usually sort of fun, because unless there’s going to be some big departure, you have all the materials there and you usually haven’t seen them for a while. So then you go back and you revisit them. It was kind of fun to take the same themes and adapt them to the next sequel, because the sequels were in a different locale. There was something different about them, for example POLICE ACADEMY 4 had a lot of flying sequences, which led themselves to writing music that would support that footage. I enjoyed that. I suppose that after the first three or four of them, you wonder, “Is there any real purpose to doing this again and again and again?” but the producer is a good friend of mine and he helped get my career started, so I have an allegiance to him. I would work on most films that he would ask me to work on.
THE PLANETS, which is also on the ‘Selected Suites’ CD, sounds very classical…
The film was a documentary. It had to do with the earth and other planets. It was a film with a lot of dimension, a large scope. They used a lot of classical recordings in the temp track, and I guess that set the tone for the music I wrote. As I recall, there was some Debussy and Ravel, there was even some of Holst’s ‘The Planets’. So that set the style for that approach, which is similar to the ballet, which is also on the double CD.
That ballet was pre-scored, using all kinds of classical music, whereas in most ballets the composer and the chorographer would get together a team and write the music and then set the choreography. On TO DREAM OF ROSES it was rather difficult, because for a number of reasons, mostly composer availability, they had to use classical music to choreograph the entire ballet and then shoot it on film before I even started working on it So that was probably the hardest synchronisation project I’ve ever had to work on, having to post score a ballet, matching every single phrase of the music that was originally used; I think there were over 40 pieces of classical repertoire used and I had to literally work phrase by phrase, beat by beat to match the dance.
Doug Trumbull (BRAINSTORM) shot the original ballet in 7Omm, incorporating high definition techniques and using some digital picture and sound effects as well. So it became a film and premiered in Osaka, I think it was in 1990, in this tremendous venue that they built at a cost of something like 30 million dollars, simply to show the ballet, which is really extraordinary.
I remember that Giorgio Moroder’s name on the cover of the NEVER ENDING STORY II CD was twice as big as yours…
That was understandable, it was a marketing tool. It was a European album and in fact it was arranged by Warner Bros. Hamburg where Giorgio Moroder was a household name. But they felt, because he was writing an original song and re-recorded his first NEVER ENDING STORY song, that these were going to be used as sales devices on the CD. It didn’t surprise me that they gave him this kind of billing.
It happens a lot…
Oh yes, it does. That’s okay. Honestly, if they sold more albums because of his name, then they probably did the right thing for the record business and to support the film. After all, if these things never make any money, then where will the future of recorded music be? So I am not terribly concerned about things like that.
Have you ever written a score where you felt you could have done better if you had been given more time?
That’s a frequent topic of concern for me: more time. Probably most scores would be better if there was more time. I would think that most composers would feel this way. Although I know a few of my peers who like the pressure of the deadline and who are fond of saying, “… My best work comes when I’m under the most pressure”. I don’t necessarily feel that way.
TREMORS is a score where I wish I’d had more time. There’s probably 30 minutes of my music in the film and I think some of it was played more than once. If I had had another week on that film, I would have replaced that entire score. As it turned out, the reason there are two composers represented on that movie was because of time. Universal moved up the release date by four weeks. When I was originally hired, I was hired to replace the entire score and the film was due to come out a month later. I think on my third or fourth day I got this phone call saying, “They moved the release up by four weeks; you now only have eight days in total.” Instead of four weeks or something! So as a result, there were a lot of orchestrators working on that movie with me, which is unusual for me. I usually work with one person, sometimes completely on my own even, occasionally with two people. But that was certainly a case where things would have been a lot different.
Have any of your scores ever been rejected, and have you ever replaced any colleagues, except for TREMORS?
I think TREMORS is the only film where I replaced a score. The very first film I did in New York, THE PLANETS, was remade about a year later and they replaced my music with John Scott’s. So I guess one of each. Although it’s becoming more and more fashionable to replace scores, it’s happening a lot. I am sure that every one of us will experience this in the coming years, probably more and more. It most often seems to happen with a film that doesn’t work anyway. In fact Richard Kraft mentioned in a conversation once, that if you look at every score that’s been replaced – almost every score – the film was never successful and rarely was the film any good. Whether critically or from a box-office point of view, it makes sense, because it’s the last thing a filmmaker can do to remedy his problem. So they score the film and if the film is not fixed – it’s still the same problem they had earlier on. All they can really do is rescore it. They can’t reshoot it, it’s prohibitive to go back and make the movie over again. Typically they will say, “Gee, the music didn’t fix it, I think I’ll try some other music and see if that fixes it!”
So you don’t think that a good score can save a bad film?
It can help the film. I think music can elevate most films a lot, but if a film is really a failure, you can’t make it a good film.
Do you sometimes get a director who says, “Look, you’re gonna have to make this film work!”
Yeah, all the time. In fact, most directors will tell you, “It’s all up to you now!” They love to say that. Sometimes they even say, “You’re gonna save our movie!” But most directors, even directors of films that are good, they still feel that the film can be better and they still look forward to the contribution that a good score can make… And they’re right to do so, because there are films that I’ve scored, where I felt that I’ve elevated that film by a really significant amount. I think that good scores do that and that’s why they’re considered such a valuable commodity.
How do you write a film score?
I usually start with themes and concepts, but not the main tide necessarily. Just maybe an overall impression of the film. What does this film mean in musical terms…. Whether it’s a theme or certain instruments or sounds that I think will play well against what the movie is about. And then I try and develop, if there are specific themes that apply to individuals or something. Usually I pick the least important scene, where I can just sort of put my toe in the water. And then from there you gather the materials and you warm up to them and things really start to jell in your mind. Usually about halfway through, I start taking the really critical scenes, I go main title, end title, major sequences and do them while I’m highly energized and before I get worn out. Because every schedule has its curve, and usually by the bitter end you are tired. I try and save less important things for the end.
Do you compose on the piano, or do you write on paper?
Some of both. Typically, I’m usually near a keyboard, but I also work at a desk and as most composers do, you sometimes end up writing on a plane, as you’re going somewhere and time is of the essence (laughs).
I had a professor at Juilliard, who was a very famous American composer; he used to drive from Pennsylvania to New York twice a week and he would write in the car. He had a sketch pad attached to his steering wheel! I don’t know if it made for safe driving (bursts into laughter).
What is your opinion about temp tracks?
I happen to like them. A lot of my compatriots hate them, but I think they are one of the better ways that a director can communicate with a composer, because you can’t talk about music very effectively. Most directors learn this pretty quickly, if they don’t know it already. Talking about something and then listening to the result that you’re going to get are usually two quite different things. But if you put down a piece of music, that you chose as a director or in concern with an editor, you can send off a strong signal about what you hope music can contribute to a scene. I think it can be very useful to set a tone like that, as long as you’re not expected to copy it too closely or be overly influenced by it, which can lead to some problems. For me, there are more pluses than minuses.
How do you feel about having your music available on CD?
I’m starting to enjoy it more and more. After having three or four CD’s in the marketplace now, I’m enjoying the fact that music has another life. I like to hear that people are listening to it, I like to hear that people are broadcasting it on various radio shows. I’m pretty excited about it
So you really feel that film music has a life on its own?
Yes, I do. I know that there are a lot of people around that say, “Well, it doesn’t have the integrity of concert music,” but I disagree. I think there is a lot of film music that’s very enjoyable to listen to. I have a pretty big collection as a listener. I listen to a lot of classical, opera and contemporary music and also a lot of film music.
Are there any film composers you particularly admire…?
I admire a lot of the gentlemen that have been doing it for along time, for ex ample John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerry Goldsmith. I like Dave Grusin a lot as a different kind of style. I love John Barry’s music; I like his melodic strength, his sense of picture and drama. Those are probably the guys I enjoy the most.
Do you have any plans for a film music concert?
Yeah. I don’t have any specific plans, but it’s something that I’ve thought about. In fact Knightsbridge Entertainment is developing a network television special centered on film music. If we succeed, it would be the first time that network television – ABC, NBC, CBS, one of the majors – would devote a two-hour special to film music. And we’ve spoken to a lot of composers; everybody would be thrilled to be involved. So if it happens, I would liken it to the Academy Awards. I mean it’s a very prestigious, elegant evening, made up of top film composers, with pictures and a big orchestra, maybe recorded in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. So we have a strong team with the director who does the Academy Awards every year, and we hope that we’ll be successful in moving film music from public sponsored TV into the mainstream. That’s our goal. And of course there will be a video.
You’re also a painter…
Yes, I do some painting as a sort of hobby. Mostly oils, sometimes watercolors and landscapes. For my CD I did what I call a self-portrait, which was quite fun. I thought it was a unique way to characterize the album. So for the people who have never seen me or met me, I thought I would do a quick self-portrait.