Interview: Bruce Broughton

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“I give long answers,” Bruce Broughton points out a few minutes into our wide-ranging conversation over the Easter weekend. The veteran composer is probably best known to readers of this site for his work on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Young Sherlock Holmes and the big screen version of Lost in Space, but he’s composed music for many different genres – including two notable Westerns – as well as a wide range of pieces away from the sound stage, as he discussed over Skype from his LA home with Paul Simpson… (Photo by julio-rodriguez)



The Lost in Space score has just been issued by Intrada in the most complete version yet. Is it one you’re particularly pleased with?

Yes, overall. Given the circumstances under which it was written I think it came out pretty well. If I had more time, it would have been a little bit different, but I think I had something like two and a half weeks. We spotted the show, and then I think the next day, I started writing.

I came up with the theme immediately for the first cue, that opening shot of the Earth, and that was my theme. I didn’t spend any time thinking about variations, or whether it was a good theme or a bad theme, yes that works – and that was sort of the way the movie went. A bit like working in television again.

isc285booklet.inddIt must have felt a bit like stepping back a few years with that sort of pressure.

I did a lot of work in television. I always enjoyed television and I still – up to a point – enjoy television because it’s fast. The difference between doing it now and when I was really busy in it is there’s a lot more interference by producers and all that. They want to look at everything that you’re doing, listen to everything; they want to look at a work in progress, which is really not the most efficient way to get a creative job done. So that’s the complaint.

In television, when I was doing a lot of it, I was doing a lot of it. It was seven days a week, usually 14-16 hour days, writing, writing, writing, writing, staying up till really late, and going to the studio early in the morning to record it. It was all live. And sometimes I’d throw it down on the page and go, “Oh man this is slop”, but when I got to the orchestra, it wasn’t that much slop. There were pieces obviously that were better than others and now that these things are appearing on CDs – Buck Rogers is a good example – I listen to it and think, “Wow, if I had a bit more time, I might have been able to fix that line,  but overall, it’s pretty interesting.”

I think writing fast when you’re forced to do it is not really a bad thing. I’ve heard other composers talk about how they like to get their themes, then work on this, work on that – it’s always good to have a good idea. But if you can’t get a good idea, you’ve just got to write with what you’ve got. A lot of people do that.

The battle is against the deadline…

And whether [the producers or directors are] going to like it. Let’s face it, this kind of music, you’re always going to do it on demand. You’re doing it for somebody who says they want this scene to be such-and-such or so-and-so.

An issue I know that some composers have, particularly young composers, is they get confused between what they’re really there for, and what they think they’re there for. What they think they’re for is to provide music. What they’re really there for is to help tell the story. The director only cares about that.

The director doesn’t care about your music as much as he cares about his story. So if you can tell the story convincingly to the director and help him do the things which is his final chance to do in the film, you’ll probably have more success than just writing pretty music.

You’re just one of the tools in his arsenal…

Absolutely but you’re the last tool. You and the sound design, you’re the last tool. You’re the most emotional tool after the performances of the actors.

Was working in television helpful in what you did subsequently?

I found TV to be a really great grounding in the craft of writing music, because you have to write so much.

I took a degree in composition, I had a good education, such as it was. But I really didn’t know how to write. The only way you can learn how to write is to write. It’s like learning to play an instrument: you need to practise.

Silverado_600aI spent 10 years working at CBS Television where I did a lot of the Hawaii Five-Os and things like that, and then when I went freelance, when I left the comfort of having a weekly salary, suddenly I was going to write a show and they would pay me for it, and maybe they would call me for the next show, and maybe they wouldn’t. That gets your creative juices going in a way, and it gets your anxiety going. Fortunately they called me, and they called me a lot, so I did a lot of writing and I got a chance to practise.

Doing Westerns, doing police shows, doing soap operas, doing all these things gave you a lot of variety, so you learned to do many different things in many different styles. By the time I got to the movies, which was several years later, I at least had a lot of experience writing.

Given that the first big movie that I did was Silverado, I was almost disappointed – almost! – that it was a Western, because I’d done so many Westerns. I thought this was a chance for me to really stretch out and do something new. But at least I knew how to do a Western.

I did two Westerns – Silverado and Tombstone – and they’re both very different. The styles are very different because the movies are very different. It wasn’t so much that I knew how to do a Western; I knew how to do the things that I needed to do in order to get the jobs done.

Around the period of Silverado, you did Young Sherlock Holmes – one of my favourite of your scores, which I often have in the background when I’m writing…

It’s very evocative.

That mixes a lot of styles as well – an Eastern influence, a lot of classical. Was that a fast job or did you have a lot of time to work on it?

No, I had not very much time at all. I started it about a month after I finished work on Silverado, and I was tired from Silverado.

Young Sherlock HolmesSilverado, there was a lot of anxiety because it was my first big movie and please God, don’t let me screw up. I went right from there to Young Sherlock Holmes. Young Sherlock Holmes had more music and less time – I think I had four weeks to do that.

It had about 10 minutes more music than Silverado, and it was a very different kind of music, because Silverado was basically a straight ahead show: it was good guys, bad guys, white hat, black hat, farmers, cattlemen – all the traditional aspects of the Western. The good guys were really good, the bad guys were really bad, and there was a big family thing, and friendship. It was very clear.

The script to Silverado was very clear: I’ll give you an example. The first time Cobb, the bad guy, and Paden meet, it’s “Hello Cobb”, “Hello Paden.” When they stand off from each other at the end of the film, the lines are “Goodbye, Cobb,” “Goodbye Paden.” It’s a film that’s that well worked out. It’s not one of those kind of films that you want to take a bathroom break in if you’ve never seen it, because you’re going to miss big parts of the story.

Young Sherlock Holmes is almost like animated action. All the scenes were done very fast. Barry Levinson was the director, and there’s one scene where the boys are running up the stairs, and he had them do it three or four times to see if they could go faster. All the scenes jam into another. It’s really like an animated movie, run from one scene to the other.

There’s a lot of complexity in the movie – there’s not a lot of complexity in Silverado. Silverado is pretty much what it is. In Young Sherlock Holmes, there are many themes – there are seven or eight themes and sub-themes, there are different styles, there’s a certain Edwardian musical style, there is a lot of crazy hallucination music. There’s a lot of filigree, and a lot of chance for the orchestra to just blossom. In Silverado, it was pretty much, stand up, be the good guy, get the bad guy, do the job. In Young Sherlock Holmes, there was a lot of thinking. The boys had to work, a lot of gears, a very complex story. So the scores were very different.

When you’re working on something where it’s a musical style that you’ve not necessarily worked with before, do you research it, or do what feels right to you?

YSH hallucinationYou research it. In fact, on Young Sherlock Holmes, that was the first time I really worked with an orchestrator, his name was Mark McKenzie – he has done a lot of work for various people since then and is a composer with his own career. What I’ve always done with orchestrators is I write a very complete short score, and then they fill it out so the copyist won’t go blind! We spent a long time trying to work out how to notate some of this stuff – we looked at Penderecki, we looked at Ligeti, a lot of people doing contemporary techniques. Sometimes their techniques were similar but their notations were very different. Because it’s a film, and it’s being sightread, and it’s all being done to time, you want to make sure that it’s as clear as possible, so the musicians don’t have to spend half an hour asking what this or that means. So we spent a lot of time dealing with that.

I would say with any movie – and I would think this is true of any composer – when you get to a film that has a style that you’re really unfamiliar with (and that happens a lot – it’s one of the great things about movie-writing), you do listen. You buy CDs, you buy scores, you look at scores. You don’t copy, but you look at what the techniques are and then pull out whatever you need to to build your score in the fashion that it needs to be fashioned. So yes, there’s a lot of research that needs to go on.

I remember reading an interview with Peter Matz, who was a great arranger – he also did some composing – from New York. He did some of the Streisand albums, he was a very good jazz arranger, and a really lovely guy. This was 30 years ago and the interviewer asks him, “What’s your next job?”

He says, “My next job is to do a disco album.”

“Have you ever done a disco album?”

“No, never,” he says, “I barely know what it is.”

“So how are you going to prepare?”

“Right after this conversation, I’m going to go out and listen to about 100 disco albums, then I’ll know what disco is.”

I thought that was a really good response because you just go out and listen to a lot of stuff and go, “I see, it’s like this and this and this.”

You hadn’t done a lot of sci-fi before Lost in Space…

Buck Rogers… It was a long time ago. I was a young man when all this happened!

Lost in Space CDThere’d been a big wave of sci-fi movies – did you listen to what other composers had been doing with the genre?

No, I didn’t. Frankly, there wasn’t a lot of conversation about this. The director, Stephen Hopkins, who was a great guy, he was crazed because he was trying to get his film finished. He had all this CGI to do. They were basically doing the film in Los Angeles, but all the CGI and effects were being done in London.

I live on the way to the airport, so he would drive to the airport, stop at my house, listen to what I was doing, go to the airport; the day afterwards, he would stop at my house to see what I had done in the last couple of days… He was very busy. We didn’t spend a lot of time discussing the details of this.

The one thing I remember about him though was I’d play him my mock-ups, which were very generic mock-ups, there was no time to do anything special, and all the comments that he made about the mock-ups were comments that he kept up to the point of recording the score. He could actually hear what I was doing, and see how I was working on his film. Very often directors can’t, but this guy could.

When we got to the recording, he was still crazed; he was running down the hall with his editor, changing the film and changing this, and he would come back and sometimes he’d look at the scene and go, “oh that’s not there any more!” It was a crazy schedule for everybody. He had the most responsibility so he had the hardest job.

He was always very clear about what needed to be done dramatically, what could be improved upon, when it worked, when it didn’t work, how I could do this or that. It was pretty great. But we didn’t have that conversation about what style is this going to be? I did it because I had to do it quickly and I didn’t have time to research it.

I basically did it in the big Star Wars type, the big style that people think is John Williams style. It really isn’t, but it’s a style that John uses when he does that music.

Which is ironic, bearing in mind he wrote the original TV Lost in Space theme.

That was an issue for about half a second – I asked, do I have to use that theme? If you look at the TV show and you look at the movie, they’re completely different. The TV series was more of a quirky comedy. There’s nothing too comedic about the movie. The only note I got back from that was you don’t need to do the theme. It wasn’t an issue.

I was grateful for that because it would have made me nuts trying to use that theme in that movie.

Lost-in-Space-film-still-Gary-OldmanI was going to ask if that was a problem not using it, but clearly not!

I’m happy not to have to use somebody else’s theme. John’s theme worked great for the TV series. If he had the movie, he would have come up with something very different from the TV series unless they really made him use the TV thing, in which case I think he probably would have pushed back. He’s a skilled guy, he’s done a lot of movies and he would say, “This is not the TV series.” Even the characters are different – the little boy who plays Will is really different; the robot is completely different; Doctor Smith, completely different. It was appropriate to do something different.

His theme, as I recall is a lively A major…

You’ve listened to it more than I have.

The Apollo 440 version is on one of the album releases.

I don’t really reference a lot of old movies. In fact I’m not really knowledgeable about the old movies and the old scores. I know there are several composers from the past whose work I like a lot, like Jerry Goldsmith and John, and Alex North and Miklos Rosza. These guys could really write. They had really good instincts with film, and you can learn a lot from them, but to talk about so-and-so’s score for whatever, I really don’t know.

I really don’t want to sound too much like a movie composer – I hear so much music that’s just obviously a movie score or a wannabe movie score. You hear music in that style, whatever that style is – it sounds like Hans Zimmer to the left, or John Williams to the right, whatever it is. You can tell whatever it is that they’re imitating and after a time it all sounds alike.

I don’t care to reference other movies, and it’s not fair to the movie. You have a unique product here, you don’t want to sound like fourteen other guys.

Click here for part 2 in whch Bruce talks about the changes in scoring that he’s seen during his career, and the differences and benefits between movie and television work and writing for the concert hall…

Many of Bruce Broughton’s soundtracks can be purchased from Intrada; for more details of his concert work, please visit his own website

Many thanks to Roger Fegelson for his help in arranging this interview.


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