Before starting with the questions, we would like to thank you for your participation; it's a privilege for us to have the chance to interview you.
You once defined film music as a kind of illusionism or magic, like a useful element which allows its master to play and experiment with the audience’s psychology. Can you explain this to us?
That idea was inspired by the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, he said the director is a illusionist, because nothing appearing on the screen is real, all is a fantasy, an illusion. I thought the music had to help to this very fact. Then I remembered my childhood in Buenos Aires, when my father invited my friends and hired an illusionist who did magic, but he curiously carried a music disc and put music in the background to accompany his shows. So, I said that for me, childhood experiences and Bergman’s ideas….
The music is part of the magic....
The audience goes to the cinema, which is dark and whatever the film was, comedy, action… whatever; the cinema goers pay a ticket to enjoy with the film. They get disillusioned if the film isn´t good, but they go predisposed to enjoy the film. All which happens during this procedure is an illusion and the music helps to this as well. Is a case, of a volunteering hypnosis.
You were born in a family of musicians and despite the fact that you studied Sociology and Law you went to Paris to study music. There you become interested in the jazz genre and you played in a night club…
Yes, the “Sain Germain”, the night club which was the most famous at these times. I was born in a family of classic musicians, but I became interested in jazz in my adolescence. When I discovered it, I could not understand why there was a frontier between the jazz and the Classical Music areas. Both of them are very good musical genres and several friends of mine, whom I call “Amphibious” (In fact I´m one of them), like André Previn, played very well not only the classical piano but also the jazz one.
There was a great musician, Frederick Gulda, a man from Vienna who was a great piano master and concert player who came to Buenos Aires to play in the “Teatro Colón” a classic repertory and there was a rumor that he was also playing jazz. So, a “jazz session” in a house was later organized and I was invited. He was told that I played jazz as well and I was asked to actually sit down with him to play a piece with four hands… so we began to play. I feel a great respect for him and I can say that understood that when he was seeing me with his deep grey eyes. He couldn’t believe that I was playing so well. That very fact was the initial, crucial boost for me and I was sure I was heading in the correct way to get into the jazz world.
In those in Buenos Aires, we were isolated from the world, and we had no idea what was good, bad, mediocre… and was the Gulda’s glance which supported me in the end.
There were other musicians as well, like Gunther Schuller, who plays the horn in the New York Metropolitan Orchestra, who loved jazz music. He is other “Amphibious” like me. We are few, but each time we were discovering more like us. An example is Paquito D’Ribera who plays the Classic Clarinet and is a terrific jazz musician at the same time. The young composers will eventually break the prejudice, the frontiers between Classic Music and Jazz.
You were the pianist and Musical director of Dizzy Gillispie, how did you meet him and what does this professional relationship mean for you?
I was in France for four years. I returned to Buenos Aires to visit my family, but at this time I settled in Paris where finished my Conservatory studies. There I had an apartment. In Argentina, a turn of the Government had just occurred, and the new Vice president had an Italian son-in-law who had been Artistic Director in the Rai and loved jazz. He called me in his Office and told to me that when he was in the Rai, he organized a jazz orchestra sponsored by the State. He was very proud of it, so he wanted to repeat another orchestra like this in Buenos Aires. I agreed, signed the contract and settled in Buenos Aired.
He asked me to put up a repertoire, so we did it in a few sleepless weeks and then I made up the orchestra with the best Argentinean artists. Gato Barbieri was one of them.
The orchestra debuted after six months, and Gillespie came with his group to Buenos Aires. There also were all the real jazz ambassadors. He had a fabulous orchestra, with a trumpet player called Quincy Jones. He was in Buenos Aires for a week, and played in the “Teatro Casino”. I was in all his concerts and one night the Night Club owners invited me to play with the orchestra. I became a very good friend of Quincy Jones in Buenos Aires. There I played with those great musicians like Benny Goldson, Phil Woods, Nelson Boyd… I played the piano solos and when I finished, Gillespie asked me if I had written the arrangements. I replied with a yes, and he asked me to go with him to USA. I was astonished. After two years (I had some problems with the residence papers), I was in USA, and writing the “Gillespiana”….
.... in 1958, right?
Despite the fact that I did arrive in 1958, I couldn’t contact him because I didn’t know his agent telephone number. I called at Dizzy’s home but nobody answered the phone. At the end of 1959, I went to see him playing in New York. When he saw me, he was very happy and asked me why I didn’t call him when I, of course, explained all the story to him.
He asked me a piece for him, and I wrote the “Gillespiana” suite. Three days later, I took him the musical draft and he liked it very much. This piece was edited by “The Verve Company”, a part of MGM Records, the disc sold 1 million of copies, so I began my music career in the USA with a lot of success.
As a matter of fact Arnold Maxim, chief of MGM Records, was the one who introduced you to the film industry. He was fan of your music and your agent Clarence Evans, asked him to get some film projects for you, right?
Yes, you are very well informed.
In fact, The film was “Les felins”, directed by René Clement….
Well, in the USA and before that I did “Rhino”. “Les Felins” was the second film I did after my departure from Argentina. I learnt a lot from René Clement.
When did you decide to work for the film music area?
In my years of formation, when I was discovering jazz, I composed classic music and went to the cinema very often. When I was five years old, my grandmother took me to see a horror film, a Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff Kind of films, and the next Monday in a break in the school I told my friends I´ve seen that film and without music, films would never be the same. I paid attention to the music and later found the music used in films isn’t always commercial except when some songs are used. This is not the case with the original score. It was modern and avant-garde, tense, thriller and action music. I don’t know the name of those great Hollywood composers but they did a very good job, and their music interested me greatly. I fall in love with the music of "Alexander Nevsky" for Prokofiev. In Paris I was also going to the cinema very often. I saw "Les diaboliques" de Clouzot, "La Strada” de Fellini". I was a huge film lover and finally I was able to work on them. Films are the Operas of the XX century. In the XIX century the people went to the theatre to watch the Operas, where the music, story, costumes and scene color were all too important. I was too going to operas with my father in fact…
When you went in the film music area, did you understand that your musical style of jazz and classical elements combination actually offered a lot of possibilities to you to better describe the characters and sequences of a movie?
I never thought of it like this, really. But it’s true that I liked to combine jazz with the symphonic orchestra and the film music area gave me the chance to do that fusion. A few years later, I could develop a project called "Jazz meets the Symphony". In fact, I did a concert in Barcelona with this project. In Spain I did a lot of film music concert, in cities like San Sebastián or Valencia. I remember with a lot of great memories, my work in "Don Quijote", a Emiliano Piedra's project that I recorded in the studios "Cine Arte" in Madrid.
Speaking about your first steps in Hollywood, you made your first success with "The Cincinatti Kid". How was it to actually work with a musician like Ray Charles?
It was an idea of Norman Jewison. I wrote a song and we didn’t know if Ray Charles would agree to sing it. We had a singer called Bill Henderson, and we did a first recording with him in the case of Charles rejecting the offer. But he finally agreed. And during the sessions he asked us what is the tone of the song, we explain it we liked the tone of Henderson, and he did it in the first take!
With that style you achieved great success with the famous main theme of "Mission Impossible". How did it came to you?
There are several things I just can’t express with words. Elements you didn’t learnt in the conservatory or in the Music School, and this theme is one of them. Call it inspiration...
Let´s go to talk about your relationship with the director Stuart Rosenberg for whom you have written several important scores. "Cool Hand Luke" is the beginning of our very talk…..
In that period, I was very well settled. My way of work was very simple: my agent called me to tell me of any project I was offered. So I got the screenplay of "Cool Hand Luke", and then I told Rosenberg that there were three options to do the music: using American Folk Music, with banjos...country music. The second was with a symphonic orchestra, in an Aaron Copland's way, very American. And the third, it was a mixed of both styles... and the final was my option, and the reason they did hired me for.
In fact the music is like a warmed jazz and elements of "Americana"...
With Brubaker, you approached the "Americana" area once again. As a film music composer, do you implant abstract ideas, as the lost of values of the human kind in the prisons, or do you work in a more intuitive way?
Perhaps we don´t analyze the film so deep. I work for instinct, and I describe the film as it is... themes, orchestral colors, ambient. Work on film music may actually be more emotional and way less intellectual.
With Rosenberg, in 1976 you did "Voyage of the dammed", one of your more reflexive scores where you ran away from the stereotypes of the Jewish world, such as the use of the violin. Do you like to often break sketches?
I´ve always been braking sketches. I don’t like the obvious. For example, in another Rosenberg's film, "The Amityville Horror" I used Horror music, but I introduced a song performed by children choir of three children voices. It's more frightening that a mixed, larder one. I like the "audiovisual" counterpoint. The image could express one thing and the music another, and this is very effective. In "Rollercoaster" I used a lot of fairground music where I imitated the electronics and mechanic instruments of that world of fun, as a counterpoint of the diabolic character who planed bombs in the park. The music is very different from the real situation of what’s happening on screen and It´s very effective. However this is not always the case with this contrast. In musical composition, there are no rules but sometimes the counterpoint is really important and effective.
About "The Amityville Horror", there is a idea we don´t personally share, which implies that part of "The Exorcist" rejected score was used in that film, what could you say?
It´s false. Warner Brothers released my version for "The Exorcist" and If you compare both you can easily hear that what these people are saying isn’t true.
Now, this is the moment to speak about your work in "The Exorcist". What did it happen, really? Why did they reject your score?
The truth is that it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life, but I have recently read that in order to triumph in your life, you may previously have some fails. What happened is that the director, William Friedkin, hired me to write the music for the trailer, six minutes were recorded for the Warner’s edition of the trailer. The people who saw the trailer reacted against the film, because the scenes were heavy and frightening, so most of them went to the toilet to vomit. The trailer was terrific, but the mix of those frightening scenes and my music, which was also a very difficult and heavy score, scared the audiences away. So, the Warner Brothers executives said Friedkin to tell me that I must write less dramatic and softer score. I could easily and perfectly do what they wanted because it was way too simple in relevance to what I have previously written, but Friedkin didn´t tell me what they said. I´m sure he did it deliberately. In the past we had an incident, cause by other reasons, and I think he wanted vengeance. This is my theory. This is the first time I speak of this matter, my attorney recommended me not to talk about it, but I think this is a good time to reveal the truth.
Thank you very much Mr.Schifrin, because a lot of fans can now learn the truth about the sad episode...
Finally, I wrote the music for the film in the same vein as that of the trailer. In fact, when I wrote the trailer I was in the studio with Friendkin and he congratulated me for it. So, I thought i was in the right way... but the truth was very different.
This was a shame, because your score was very original and pioneer…
Yes, I was very excited with that project as well but life doesn’t start or end with "The Exorcist".
Will you release it in a complete edition with the label "Aleph Records"?
It isn’t possible as I don’t have the rights of the music.
Your experimental thoughts with score for "The Exorcist" inspired me to ask you about your other vanguardist score, with chorus, flute and percussions: "THX 1138", how did you collaborate with George Lucas and what do you remember from that experience?
I have very good memories of that. Recently in New York, on the anniversary of THX, the film was showed in The Guggenheim Museum and there I reunited with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. It was very pleasant to work with Lucas, quite the reverse to the Friedkin experience, because George supported me very much. In those times, Lucas didn’t understand much about music, but It isn’t important, because he knew what he wanted to have expressed with it. I could translate it. Lucas knows what he wants and he´s very firm with his proposals, but no doubt it’s very easy to work with him.
Another director with whom you had a very special collaboration was Don Siegel. You worked with him in five films...
What´s your favorite project, done with Siegel?
Well, "Dirty Harry" was very successful, but I keep a very special place in my heart for "Charley Varrick". In Argentina the film was very successful. It was a very hard work for me, because it was like a "Mission Impossible" where all the team told at the beginning of the mission what they will do exactly. But in "Charley Varrick" it was a mission impossible where nobody talked about the mission They only thought of it and my work was to write a music for that very thought. Personally, I think it´s one of the best films of Siegel, along "The Beguiled", a very good film with a score I´m very proud of. Don Siegel knew how to motivate to me. We´ve been very close friends.
As you previously said, your most famous collaboration with Siegel, was "Dirty Harry". It´s a very modern score. Did you ever think that it actually revolutionized the music for police films?
No, I didn’t. I don´t want to think in those terms. The film itself inspired me. I said Don Siegel I would use female vocals... hysterical, and for Scorpio, the antagonist character, distortion electric guitars, because it was the times of "Acid Rock" and I tried to mix it with my music. Siegel asked me why I want to use voices, and I said him: "This guy is mad and he heard voices", and Siegel said: "Ahhh, that´s good!!" (laughs). The film was shoot during the Vietnam war, and Siegel dressed Scorpio with a pacifist belt…it was a contradiction. So I understand it was the way for the music: the contradiction, the madness.
In those films you worked with Clint Eastwood with whom you have worked in "Kelly´s Heroes". You have also worked with him in "Sudden Impact", where he was also the director. How is it to work with a director who understands music?
Incredible. Eastwood is a great fan of my music. Recently, when I was a member of an important jazz festival in California, I gave a concert of the "Gillespiana" in the Carnegie Hall. It was a great success, and there it was Clint... he hugged me. We are very close friends. I also met Clint in the Cannes Festival, when Quentin Tarantino won the award for "Pulp Fiction" (1994), I was a jury member, and Clint was the president of the jury. In the jury members you could also find the Italian director Pupi Avati, who played the piano and loved the jazz. Some times we didn´t know if we were in a film festival or in a jazz festival! We did "jazz sessions" all the nights. The jury members couldn’t be mixed and meet with the rest of the people, so we were cornered. I was in the suite with my piano... and Clint in a villa with another piano. It was a very memorable experience.
In 1968, with “Bullit”, you once again revolutionized police film scores with the use of the metals. Especially, your theme "Shifting gears", did you try to reflect the violence of those films?
The music goes always with the film, and I try to be guided by it. It´s curious but a lot of people said me they loved the music I wrote for the cars chase. But I told them there isn‘t any music for that scene! "Shifting Gears" is the attention he put to the characters while they see the car they are chasing, through the rear-view mirror. The traffic is slow, and I increased the tension with the music until McQueen turns to another street when, in that very moment, I stop the music. The director, Peter Yates, also asked me for music for that scene but I told his it’s not necessary because that scene only needed the sound effects and no music at all. Sounds are also music... a very important part of the soundtrack. In fact "Musique Concrete", is based in sounds, and that´s what I suggested Yates... and did played very well in the end!
In 1973, you were the first composer to write the score of an american’s martial arts film, "Enter the Dragon". You once said that you felt like Ennio Morricone with the Spaghetti Western....
Yes, I wanted to say Ennio Morricone did Westerns films where the music was "bigger than life", because he researched the exaggeration. He did it very well. I thought that, for "Enter the Dragon", I had to use the same idea, exaggerate with the music, and run away from the oriental elements.
"The Fox" is one of your more admired scores because of your elegancy and light bareness, are you glad with this score?
Yes, I was in a very good tuning with the director Mark Rydell, who also plays jazz piano. The producer said to me, that because the film had only two female characters and one male, I could help the film if I wrote a very commercial score with a great symphony orchestra. I said it wasn´t the way of the film, because all was very intimate, with a few characters in the middle of Canadá, enclosed by a lot of snow and beautiful surroundings. It would be an exaggeration of a very bad taste to use a symphony orchestra there. So I decided to write a chamber-musical piece, a very intimate one and Rydell agreed with me.
I wrote for a little orchestra with flute, string quartet, oboe, fagot, horn, clarinet, piano, clavecín and some percussion.
"Le pelle" of Liliana Cavani, has one of you best love themes, how do you remember this collaboration?
Very well, I had read Curzio Malaparte's book before, who has won the Nobel prize. I knew the history, and I think Liliana Cavani did a wonderful work, with a great influence from Fellini. It was a very beautiful experience because I recorded the score in Rome with the Santa Cecilia Academy Orchestra, one of the best orchestras of Italy.
With "Anno Domini", with one of your most memorable main themes, you entered in the Religious-themed area. Was it the first time you wrote for this kind of movie?
No. Previously, Pope John XXIII commissioned me to write the "Missus in Jazz" for whom I won a Grammy. I´ve had a great relationship with the Vatican. I got to meet the new Pope, Benedictus XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) three years ago in Hannover (Alemania), where I played the "Missus in Jazz". There were the German prime minister, and the archbishop from Hannover. He brought Rantzinger to the concert. He was curious with jazz music and he liked it.
Also, Olivier Messiaen, my Master in Paris, was a catholic mystic and played the organ in the Church of the Trinity at Sunday mornings. I went to listen to him playing and it was very impressive. There is lot of emotion in the religious vocation. I believe in God but I´m not very active, religiously speaking, I respect and was impressed by the catholic devotion of some truly faithful people. This attracted me a lot, and "Anno Domini" was a great opportunity to reflect all this emotions with the music.
Did you met Ava Gardner during the shoot of a TV Miniseries, right?
I met Ava a few years ago, when I was with Dizzy. She went to heard us with Gillespie. She likes jazz and I could see it right away. She became a true fan since her marriage with Artie Shaw. Also, the producer of "Charley Varrick" and "The Beguiled", Jennings Lang, organized meetings in his house where we usually met..
You worked in Spanish projects as well like "Don Quijote", "Berlín Blues" and Carlos Saura's "Tango". Do you admire Saura's films?
Yes, we had a first meeting in Madrid. The Argentinean producer Juan Codazzi told me about the film and the meeting went very well. Then he gave me the screenplay in London. It has been the one film where I have had to compose the music before the film was shoot. Saura told the story like "Carmen", through the dance. We did it in Argentina with three choreographers. There I spoke with Vittorio Storaro, the director of photography. I was very interested to record the score in digital, but It wasn’t possible. Finally, we decided to record everything in Buenos Aires, because the best Tango choreographers and musicians were Argentinean.
Did you find a challenge to develop new ways for the tango in that film?
Well, I have only worked with the tango in París, when Astor Piazzola called me to play in an album he was recording. I asked him: "Why me?" and he answered: "Because you know to play jazz and my tango has swing" (laughs). Also, Piazzola called me to conduct one of his last works. Ironically, I worked with him in his first works and I was also in the last one. There a lot of great names of Tango who have that "swing" element. In fact, Horacio Salgán, one of the most renowned tango pianists, is one of them. I admire him.
With Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, you worked in "Something to believe in". But It isn´t the first time you worked with him...
Plácido worked with me in "Los Cantos Aztecas". He also called me to do "The Three Tenors". About "Something to believe in", I contacted him and said I want him to sing the theme. He liked the idea, and recorded it in New York. He was working in the Metropolitan Opera at that time.
Last year you composed the music for "Abominable", a film directed by your son Ryan. How was it to work with your son?
Very beautiful. The film hasn´t got released yet, but I am very happy with the work I did for my son. I am very proud with his film because this is his first work, a horror film. Also, I recently wrote the score of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"....
...filmed in Spain...
Yes, but recorded in London, because the director was English.
Recently, "After the Sunset" has been released. The theft sequences reminded me of your works for "Bullit" or "Dirty Harry", especially the picked bass. Was it your idea?
Yes, completely. But the music isn´t exactly like those films but there are some similarities indeed.
Which are your future projects?
If I talk about those projects we would then never be able to finish this talk today (laughs). I don´t like to speak about the future. Once, Plácido Domingo said "I am not superstitious because it could bring me bad luck (laughs)”
But could you anticipate us the next releases of your label, Aleph Records...
In few days "Caveman" will be released. A 1981 comedy I did with Ringo Starr. Then the complete score for "Magnum Force", where all the music will be heard along with previously unreleased material which wasn´t used in the film. I am also recording some classic works. I recently was in the Lincoln Center with a chamber music piece called "Cartas de Argentina". We´ll record it for a release later this year.
How do you see the film music of our days? What are the musicians you´re most interested in?
Well, Bernard Herrmann said that film music composers don´t exist, there only are composers. So, the composers I´m more interested are Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, all avant-garde musicians. And of course Penderecki.
To Conclude, which is the score you are most proud of?
That´s is like to ask a father what is his most loved child. I liked all my scores, I´m very proud of them all.
Mr.Schifrin, It has been a real honor to talk with you
Thank you very much, and good luck with your website. It looks terrific!
Special thanks: Brooke Casey (Mr. Schifrin´s assistant) and Liane Mori (Rogers & Cowan).
For more info about Mr. Lalo Schifrin, we recommended your website:: www.alephrecords.com
Edited to English by Demetris Christodoulides.