Interview: Craig Safan

Starfighter 2015Safan 1The recipient of the Basil Poledouris Award For A Film Music Legend at last year’s International Film Music Festival in Cordoba, Spain, Craig Safan has been composing music for film and TV across the last five decades. His score for the 1984 SF movie The Last Starfighter was recently re-mastered and released by Intrada, and from his home on the West Coast, he chatted with Paul Simpson about the different versions of the piece…


In the notes to the release, you note that you re-orchestrated the fanfare during the recording of the Last Starfighter soundtrack; what did you feel was lacking?

When I originally recorded the Main Title, the opening section just didn’t seem powerful enough; everything else sounded great when the main theme came in and all the big complicated Bartok fanfare in the middle of it, but the very opening seemed to lack power. I just had the brass on it. I went back and added the stabs with the full orchestra – giant hits which made it at a level of the rest of the opening.

safan 2It would be interesting to hear the original to compare the two.

The original would sound pretty much exactly the same except the opening part of it, before it went into the big melody, would have not have had as much accented power. Other than that, it never got mixed, so I don’t know where that piece of tape would be.

I think it’s amazing that Doug Fake and Intrada actually found the original master recordings anyway. It’s been a long time, and the studio, Lorimar, doesn’t exist anymore. It got sold to Warner Bros., and I think it’s co-owned by Universal and Warner Bros. so it’s a bit of a detective job to find that material.

It sounds great: I haven’t heard the CD yet but I was there with Doug when we mastered it.

Starfighter original backThe cues on the CD are now ordered in the way they were in the film; some composers prefer to create a suite from their film work for CD release. Would you rather create something that’s more of a piece musically rather than chronologically?

This music has had three incarnations now on CD. In the old days, you just picked the main big pieces of music – and everything else would just be like, “well that’s stuff a composer has to do whether they like it or not, write the 20-second cues” – and then they put in a lot of songs. That was Southern Cross.

The second time was Intrada, and we took off the songs, but still we didn’t have all the material, so we concentrated on the big moments.

Now I think the fans and the people who love film music, they want to hear every little bumper, every little thing. I don’t think it’s the choice of the composer at this point; if people want to hear all that stuff, it’s there. All us composers, we work hard on those little pieces too to make them right, but to us, musically, they’re not very interesting.

Starfighter original frontI did an overture for Erich Kunzel at the Cincinnati Pops that’s been done a lot, and then I did a longer suite for the International Film Music Festival last summer (2014); that’s my favourite now. I conducted that in Cordoba; that was a lot of fun.

When you did that suite, did you have to create new linking passages or did the music naturally segue between the cues?

I had to create a few things. A lot of it naturally segued, but here and there I’d create a bar. The opening is new – I needed an opening, because I didn’t want to open it with the big fanfare. The overture does that. I did a very quiet opening and then I moved the cues around. You always have to write a little connection, but not much.

You were working with music you composed 30 years ago – was there a temptation to orchestrate it differently, or do you feel you have to respect the choices you made back then?

Definitely the latter. I don’t want to re-orchestrate it. When I take out those scores, I think, “man where did I ever have that much energy to write all those notes?” I don’t have that energy any more. Those big scores are a huge amount of physical and mental work – they’re exhausting. I don’t really want to rewrite them at all.

The big challenge was really on the Remo Williams score which I also wrote a little overture for, for the same programme at Cordoba. That was a score with a lot of elements that you can’t do live – like tons of synthesizers. I had 24 tracks of synthesizers; I had a small Korean orchestra that was mixed with that. Of course I had to rewrite that: I had to retranslate that into an orchestral setting. Starfighter I didn’t have that problem with.

starfigher 1995With Cordoba, were you working with as big an orchestra as you had for the sessions?

No! I’ll never get an orchestra that big again. You only get those orchestras when you’re performing Mahler’s 5th Symphony or something like that.

We had six horns: normally a romantic orchestra has four horns, many only have three or two. I had quadruple woodwinds; the typical woodwinds is two or three – I had four of each. It was a massive orchestra. I tweaked it a little to deal with some of those issues.

The thing that’s amazing about having that many woodwinds is that it does begin to sound like a huge church organ – when you use them all, the effect is this gigantic amount of air being moved. It’s very organ-like. I wasn’t relying on the strings or the horns to give a lot of glue or background texture; the woodwinds did it all.

In terms of the influences on the score, this came out at a time when John Williams felt like a sort of Godfather figure over SF music. John Barry did The Black Hole; Jerry Goldsmith on Star Trek… everybody was trying not to be John Williams…

The problem was that there was no way that you could do anything other than some version of a romantic orchestra. Otherwise they would have basically tossed the score. That’s what was expected; that’s what was wanted. You couldn’t say that you wanted to do something totally electronically.

The trick was to try to find your own voice. One trick was that I had one theme that I was using one theme for many purposes, rather than a lot of little themes. There are some themes obviously but there’s that one big theme which is used for adventure, triumph, love, yearning… that one theme I used at least four different ways.

SpringAlso rather than listen to a lot of Holst, I did get involved with listening to some of the Sibelius symphonies, which had a different, more lush, more beautiful texture. I listened to a lot of his writing and his orchestration, where he was different from Holst – because the Williams stuff is really based on The Planets. Star Wars was originally tracked with The Planets, and then John Williams convinced George Lucas to do an original score, but they still had The Planets in their brains, so they had to do that.

Sibelius was such a great composer, and really knew his way around an orchestra.

Whose other orchestration do you particularly admire?

You learn a little from everybody. The people that really stick out for me are Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade is amazing. The first stuff I really listened to was Stravinsky. I came into music from a backward direction: I was an art major at university, but I had studied piano and written songs for years, and the first classical music I listened to was The Rite of Spring. That was the first full score I ever bought to study. I then had to work my way back down through the ages, but I started with Stravinsky and Bartok – those are really my favourite composers.

Obviously with The Last Starfighter, there are elements of Stravinsky and Bartok in there, but overall it’s much more of a romantic score.

wolfenYour unused Wolfen score is also available…

I love that score – it’s a really interesting score. It’s out of the ordinary for better or worse. I had done so much electronic work that I was fascinated with trying to do a score with no electronics but get those same sounds with an orchestra.

Have you moved away from film and television?

I have, partly out of choice and partly out of how the business works: people are not really calling me that much for film scores these days. I’ve been working on a project called Rough Magic that is a piece that I’ve wanted to write for many years but haven’t had the time. It’s music based on my impression of prehistoric cave art – I took a tour through France and northern Spain and visited about 20 different early man sites, and recorded a lot of sounds in the actual caves.

We’ve just finished mixing it and it’s coming out on Perseverance in May; we’ll probably release a couple of cues before that on YouTube or SoundCloud. That’s really been one of my main jobs for the last year and a half.

What instruments are you using?

It’s a combination of orchestra and lots of sound effects; voices, sounds I recorded in the caves, traditional instruments played in lots of weird ways. It’s a conglomeration – hard to describe! It’s very evocative and some of it is melodically oriented, but a lot of it is not: it’s sound pictures.

Thanks to Beth Krakower and Grecco Bray for their assistance in setting up this interview.

The Last Starfighter is now available from Intrada Records.

For more samples of Craig Safan’s work, check out his website here




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