Exclusive: Interview With Legendary Film Composer Robert Folk
Film Composer and Hollywood icon Robert Folk sits down for a 1-to-1 with WhatCulture.
WhatCulture! recently sat down for an exclusive interview with renowned film composer Robert Folk. Best known for his work on ‘Beastmaster 2’, ‘The Neverending Story 2’, ‘Toy Soldiers’, ‘Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls’ and of course, ‘Police Academy’, the 63-year-old L.A based musician is spritely and charming. Folk, who was born in New York, has an East Coast accent with a soft warm roll in it; something which one comes to associate with the cultured and educated members of American society. Sporting a healthy glow, he sits in an office decorated with posters of the films he has previously scored – a customary sight amongst film professionals.
During our one-to-one in depth chat Folk talks about IMAX ballet, the ‘Police Academy’ reboot and his work as replacement composer on Roland Joffe’s soon to be released, re-cut, re-mixed, re-packaged historical epic ‘There Be Dragons’ entitled ‘There Be Dragons: Secrets of Passion’.
WhatCulture! (WC): ‘There Be Dragons’ was released last year (2011) with a score by Stephen Warbeck. What is the story behind this re-release, ‘There Be Dragon: Secrets of Passion’?
Robert Folk (RF): The story behind the re-release is that Roland [Joffe] felt that the first version of the film was not complete to his satisfaction. I think a lot of the editorial was not exactly to how he wanted. It was much of a team effort that produced the first film, and the result of this, that included the musical score, was not how he intended. By the way, I really enjoyed the Stephen Warbeck score that he wrote for the original film. But I think Roland felt that one of the biggest factors missing in the first version was a correct sense of pacing throughout the film. In the new version, one of the most important aspects was that he wanted to have this sense of movement from beginning to end, rather this kind of languishing quality that was in the first version of the film. So a lot of that had to do with editorial, and also a tremendous amount of that had to do with the pacing of the music. In the score that I worked on with Roland and James [Ordonez] (executive producer), in almost every scene there is a sense of movement; which is sort of unusual from my perspective because often times, if you’ve got a slow broad dramatic scene that is unfolding in some sort of poetic way, often times you would have the music take on that persona, you’d be trying to support that scene the way you see it, the way you’d feel it on screen. But here, we made a distinct effort to really keep the pace moving, even in scenes that might at first appear to be a bit broader or bring a slower quality to the film. In terms of why did he do it? What is the new version all about? It has to do with storyline, pacing, with an energy level that he felt was not represented in the first version of the film.
WC: You’ve mentioned this idea of the new score adding a fresh dimension to the film. Could you say that the score is something of a character within There Be Dragons: Secrets of Passion?
RF: I would say it’s definitely a central character within the film. For me, the way the film was mixed, and of all the films I’ve done which is about 65, I would say the music is more prominent. Maybe part of that is Roland and James thinking about certain international audiences. I was asked to write five different themes for the picture, and they are linked specifically to various characters and specific emotions in the film. I would describe it as similar to watching an operatic performance. In that sense I would say the music is a much featured character in the film.
WC: So this new score is indicative of a completely new film. What that be fair to say?
RF: Oh for sure.
RF: You know I have not. I’m not sure what his feeling is about the new version of the movie. I think for any composer its always disappointing after you’ve invested your heart and soul into something for several months, to hear that – “Oh there’s a re-cut of the film, they’re going to do it a different way, etc, etc.” I think it’s happened to pretty much every composer where another version of the film is developed and all of a sudden your score is no longer there; its part of what we do I would say. I guess it’s similar to the way scriptwriters are always being re-written. Maybe it doesn’t happen as often as that, but it’s a similar concept. With filmmaking being a team effort its just part of the process. It’s not only about you or your music, or even the way you interpreted that film.
WC: What was it like working with Roland Joffe?
RF: I found him to be an incredibly dynamic filmmaker. This guy has got so much energy and charisma, and he is so prolific as a writer and a filmmaker I was totally amazed to spend time with him. Roland is in his mid-60s but you feel like you’re working with someone who is 35 years old. He is a true human dynamo. When you spend time with him you will agree he is a really impressive guy, with a high level of intellect and a high level of energy. So for me it was a fantastic experience.
WC: When you were approaching the score, did you have any references for inspiration?
RF: I really went off of Roland and James in terms of the specific approach that they had in mind. They really are the central mind on our new version of the film. I would say James had so much to do with the reworking of the film, and sort of working to make sure that Roland’s vision was intact. With the music being replaced there was a very specific reason, and they came with very strong ideas. So of course, my contribution was to come up with those themes which would do the thing that they were looking for. Neither one of them are musicians so to speak, but they have very strong opinions about the direction the music should take. I would say I was an interpreter on the filmmaker’s design for this particular score. Many times you work with a director and they have no idea about what they want to do with music, and then as the composer you have much more freedom to create a musical landscape that you’re going to work with. But in this case both these filmmakers are extremely knowledgeable about music and film music and had very decided ideas about it.
RF: I like to think of myself as one of the more eclectic composers based out here on the West Coast. I’ve definitely had the opportunity to write in every genre and I hope it continues that way.
WC: To date, what of your work is your favourite?
WC: The current favourite is ‘There Be Dragons [Secrets of Passion]’. It certainly from my own personal experience, has been the most rewarding project in the last ten years, let’s say. There was a film that I really loved working on and it’s a film that was not a big box office success. But it was one of those rewarding experience; it was a film called ‘Miles From Home’. It starred Richard Gere and was director by Gary Sinise, who is more well known these days as an actor, but he is really an incredible filmmaker. That was a movie that I really enjoyed probably because it was a very dramatic setting, a lot of dark aspects to the story as well as room for a romantic story. We also went to the Cannes film festival with the movie and that was a lot fun. Gary and I were travelling with Richard Gere and a bunch of folks, and that was a really fantastic experience, so that is another one of my favourite film scores. There is also one other film I’d throw into the mix. It was an IMAX film of an original ballet; the project was called ‘To Dream Of Roses’. What made it really interesting was that it was created as a filmed ballet featuring The American Ballet Theatre, it debuted at the Osaka World’s Fair and there was a pavilion built solely for the purpose of displaying this IMAX movie, and that led to my writing the original ballet score for the movie; which by the way, we recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra – one of the best groups I’ve ever worked with and an incredible orchestra for recording film-like scores.
WC: With you being a Julliard trained musician, one might imagine that this particular project was a walk in the park?
RF: The challenging thing was that it was a live ballet performance, then shot in the IMAX format. The dancing performances were shot before I created the score, so that made it very very challenging because not only are you coming up with an original score, but it has to appear that those dancers are dancing to that music. But in fact, for very logistical reasons, they actually shot the performance to temporary music.
WC: Your experience of film composing must have been very useful in that scenario.
RF: Oh for sure. It was crazy because in usual film score you are interacting with all the motion you see on screen. But when they are performing ballet to a specific piece of music, you have to go in a recapture all of that. That was a challenge, but a lot of fun.
RF: Tons. There have been quite a few that I wish I had done, but for scheduling reasons or whatever it didn’t work out.
WC: Are there any projects that you’ve worked on that you wish you hadn’t?
RF: I’d say there are quite a few, and I’m probably not the only composer who feels this way. I would say that most composers and most artists that work within the film industry, often times, if you cant get certain projects that you want in certain times frames, you end up doing lets say a ‘replacement’ project. Sometimes its for business reason, sometimes its for relationship reason like a certain director or producer that you’re very close with needs a favour. To turn those people down when they’ve been loyal to you and really advanced your cause in so many ways; there’s a real obligation there. I think if you spoke with many composers or directors or artists or filmmakers, I think you’ll find this would be the number one reason for doing the films that you did where you wished you’d done something else.
WC: The role of the composer could sometimes be considered a thankless task. There are however a handful of well-known writers such as Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Danny Elfman. Your soundtracks are very well known, and one might even argue iconic, but do you ever feel that sense of ‘celebrity’?
RF: I would say yes in some respect. But it is more tied to the filmmaking community rather than the mass audience. But there are many tens or hundreds or thousands of film music fans out there worldwide whom I hear from all the time, and I am sure it is true with all the composers who have a certain body of work. It’s not a bad world to have that kind of fan base of people that respect and love your work. I have never felt that sense of the composer having a thankless task; I’ve never felt that in my career. I think that composers in general write music because they love to write music. When I was at Julliard School, I had earned a doctorate at the school and had done my undergraduate and my masters there as well. I spent 10 years right in the heart of the Lincoln Centre [base of Julliard] and I loved that world so much and I loved writing music so much so, that I never thought of it as work. You are obviously putting in a lot of hours and a lot of hard work writing scores, but that love never changed, even once I moved to California and starting working on film scores. Love for music is still very much the first motivation. So even if a film is not great, and lets face it, most films are not great – I would say about 10% of films that are made are fantastic movies, maybe only even 5%. Nevertheless, creating a musical score for a movie is still motivated by that artists love of creating and writing, and that adds value to you the creative person regardless of the specific movie that you’re working on.
RF: Police Academy…I don’t know what they’ll call it, it will be Police Academy something, I don’t think they’ll put a number on it. They are thinking of it as, too coin the overused term, a ‘reboot’. That is how they are looking at it, as doing the whole series all over again for a new generation of that target audience. Paul Maslansky is really working hard on this project; he has been the producer on the series since the very first film and is a terrific mind. They have hired a new young director [Scott Zabielski] who I have spent quite a bit of time with, and I have helped them out with some test shots that they have done in terms of making sure the musical setting was as strong as it could be. It is a Warner Brothers New Line project, and they are doing a very final tweak on the script right now (Jeremy Garelick recently came on board for rewrites) and I am pretty sure they will probably announce a green light on the project by September; that’s my guess. We are trying to conceptualize what the score will be almost 30 years after the first film was made. I know that they want to use all of the original themes because they are so recognizable, but now the question is “what sort of clothing are we going to dress those themes in?” Will it be the classic presentation in certain scenes, or will it be a more modern landscape supporting those musical elements? Something more indicative of contemporary comedic scoring, which I would describe simply as being more rhythmically motivated than say the score that I wrote in the 80’s.
WC: What you have seen so far from the test shots, does the film look exciting?
RF: It is a lot of fun. I have seen about half a dozen test shots, and they are trying to establish a certain style of visualizing the film and a certain style of casting. Those test shots were hilarious. I would say that the director is extremely young and very edgy; I am convinced that he is going to come up with something that has a lot of raw humour.
WC: So are we looking at something in line with the likes of recent re-boot ‘21 Jump Street’?
RF: Yeah I think so, and maybe even go further out. It will be a lot of fun.
RF: I just saw ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ which I thought was a really beautiful film. Not everybody aggress with me on this (laughs) but I thought it was really epic and beautiful. The film has a great score by James Newton Howard, and just some terrific performances. I’d say that is my favourite movie from the last month or two. But also, I cannot wait to see The Dark Knight Rises. I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan! I think the guy is like Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas all wrapped up in a 40 year old.
WC: So if you had an opportunity to work with Chris, that would be an exciting prospect?
RF: That would be beyond a brilliant experience. But he has been with Hans [Zimmer] on all of his important movies, and that is not likely to change.
WC: 3D or IMAX, what is the future of cinema?
RF: I am not a big 3D fan, so I guess that answers the question (laughs). You know, when you go to the really top quality hi-tech IMAX theatres here in Los Angeles, I have to say it’s thrilling. I saw ‘Snow White’ at one of these theatres and the picture and sound was just incredible. I cannot even understand why anyone would watch a film at home when you can watch it at that type of setting. Although, like everybody else, I watch a lot of movies at home just for practical reason, but I just think the IMAX experience is incredible.
‘There Be Dragons: Secrets of Passion’ is currently awaiting an international release date, but it is looking hopeful that it might get a late 2012 distribution. Meanwhile you can listen to Robert Folk’s score for the film here or download it from iTunes.
‘There Be Dragons’ the original cut is available at all good retailers.