Interview with Russell Garcia
The following interview with Russell Garcia is printed here with permission.

PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

The Film Music of
Russell Garcia
Interview by Randall D. Larson


Show me the part of the interview concerning:
Among the science fiction films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE retains a special place. The evocative recreation of Victorian England, the charming set designs and evocative if dismal picture of the future, the beauty of Yvette Mimieux counterpointed against the primitive bestiality of the Morlocks, and the memorable, futuristic music of Russell Garcia have placed the film in the favorite category of many aficionados. A prolific arranger and conductor for Hollywood, television, and recording artists, Garcia actually composed relatively few motion pictures. But he definitely left his mark on film music through his score for THE TIME MACHINE, and Pals next picture, ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT (both scores thankfully, and very nicely, preserved on CD by GNP Crescendo in 1987). In these unpublished interviews, held in June, 1984 and May, 1985, Garcia spoke candidly about his role in motion picture music and his recollections on THE TIME MACHINE and other classic science fiction films.

Q: What's your background in music?

Russell Garcia: I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area - Oakland and Berkeley. I got into music fairly young. I was writing arrangements and compositions and things for even symphony sized orchestras when I was ten years old. I went to San Francisco State University for only one year - I wasn't learning too much at that time (they have a much better music department now, I gather), so I went on the road with the bands. That was the Big Band era, you know, and I worked with Harry James and a lot of the different bands. I decided I wasn't gaining too much, even though I was writing arrangements every week and playing in the bands. So I came to Hollywood and decided to study with the finest composers and conductors and teachers that I could find, which I did.

Q: Who were some of the composers you studied under?

Garcia: I studied with Edmund Ross, who was a great teacher; I studied with Ernst Toch, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and I studied conducting with Sir Albert Coates, who had a rehearsal symphony. We got to conduct something every week. I guess I got my first break here, a conductor/composer got ill and there was a radio show -- Ronald Reagan was the director, and Jane Wyman was often an actress on it (they were married then), and I worked that for about a year, composing and conducting, and then when that finished, I had nothing much happening,

Jane Wyman was a good friend of a musical director over at NBC and she sent me down there to talk to him. Well, he had just left the job, but their conductor there asked me to write a few things for him, and for many I did. I worked at NBC as a staff composer and arranger then years, until World War II took me away.

Henry Mancini was the one who first got me into Universal Studio. He called me in to work on THE GLENN MILLER STORY, so that was my first break at Universal. I did some films with Percy Faith. Percy gave you such a complete sketch there was hardly much to do except transpose and add a few vibraphone or percussion things. He was one of the talented ones that I orchestrated for. I used to have the Universal orchestra every Friday afternoon after lunch for as long as I needed them, to record the music I had done all week. I used to do a lot of TV, Stan Wilson was musical director then, I did many TV series. Every week I was working on something. Universal was my first home. I worked there for fifteen years as a composer, arranger, conductor, any one or all three!

Q: You pretty much handled everything, composing, arranging,conducting, the works.

Garcia:Right. In every style. You know, when you're working so long in TV and feature films, one week you're writing a romantic score for a love story with strings, and the next week you're in outer space, and the next week detective story jazz, its always some thing different. You have to keep up on everything, actually.

Q: Did you like that kind of variety, or was there any particular type of film you preferred to do over some others?

Garcia: Oh, I enjoyed it all. Of course some are more pleasurable than others. I love modern symphonic music and I love jazz, so naturally I enjoy it when a film is one of those, my two great loves.

Q: What were some of the earliest films you composed for?

Garcia: My first films were way back, real cheapies. Lippert filmed them in about five or six days, and then we'd have to record the whole score, about forty minutes of music, in three hours! It was kind of a sausage factory. The films were pretty bad. Once in a while you see one on TV and they're really funny. I did one called RADAR SECRET SERVICE and one called OPERATION HAYLIFT.

Q: From a composer's standpoint, given an assignment to score a film like that, what kind of approach or initial concepts did you have for the kind of music you wanted to write for these films?

Garcia: always tried to write a good score no matter what the film was. I never went out and looked for work, and I never had an agent until I got fairly well known - and then the agent never got me work! He used to talk money because he could talk money better than I could, but everything I did was the best I could and that would lead to something else and to something else. Sometimes you don't write as complex a score if you have to record it in a hurry - you don't write something so difficult and complex that it will take an hour to record five minutes of music. But you can still write effectively and beautifully without making it too difficult to play.

Q: What were some of the other early assignments you had in Hollywood?

Garcia: I was working in radio and TV and recording albums. I used to do the DINAH SHORE SHOW and the ANDY WILIAMS SHOW as an arranger, all sorts of things. I was the busiest man in this town, I think, for many many years, because I could write fast and apparently they had confidence in the quality of it. I did THE PAD at Universal, which was a Ross Hunter film. Norman Jewison was the director on it. That's the only film where the director and I disagreed with a producer for the whole feeling of the film. The story was tragic and comic and Ross Hunter only wanted to see the comic side of it. But Norman Jewison and I saw both sides of it and wanted to play both sides. I also worked on Charlie Chaplin's film, LIMELIGHT. That was a big rhubarb later. Charlie Chaplin wrote the themes, the melodies. He was a real talent. The pianist that went to rehearse with Charlie -- Charlie would sing or play one finger on the piano and Ray Rasch was the pianist -- and he said, "Ray, why don't you score this film? I've written all the melodies, why don't score it?" Ray said "okay" But he didn't know how orchestrate, so he got me to work with him and I orchestrated the whole film. Of course we had to do a lot of composing with Charlie's themes, but they were all Chaplin's themes.

I worked on Quincy Jones's first two films. Quincy's real talented but he hadn't had much film experience at that time, so I worked with him on those first two. He did the composing but I did a certain amount of them.

One interesting film I worked on, I got paid $200 a day plus all expenses in Las Vegas to watch Jane Mansfield strip! We were doing a film called NIGHTS IN LAS VEGAS and she had a strip scene, and they had me come up to be sure she stayed on the beat. The tune was "Night Train" and it's a big audience, her husband Mickey Haggerty sitting at one of the tables there, and she's doing this strip, and she loved it so she kept making mistakes on purpose, so it took us about two days to film the sequence! That was a pretty easy job!

Q: You are, of course, best remembered in films for THE TIME MACHINE.
How did you become involved with this film?

Garcia: I'd done an album called Fantastica, Music From Outer Space for Liberty Records, combining a lot of sound effects with music, and George Pal heard this and so he called me in to do the film.

Q: What do you recall of the experience scoring the film?

Garcia: It was quite an experience! The first thing, I went in with three percussion men, way before the film scoring, and recorded all kinds of effects - hitting a musical saw with a soft mallet and wavering it, hitting gongs and holding a mike in the center and gradually moving it out to the edge, and crinkling cellophane and blowing into gelatin with a straw, taking a knife to the edge of a table and making it vibrate and then bringing it in so it would make that b-r-r-r-r-u-u-u sound. Every kind of effect I could think of.

Q: These were more acoustical effects as opposed to electronic, is that correct?

Garcia: Yes. I did also use some synthesizer type sweeps and such. In that day they were fairly new! For the opening of THE TIME MACHINE I took the sound that we'd recorded by hitting a big gong in the center and bringing the mike out to the end, but we ran it backwards, so it started with just the high tingles, the overtones, and finally builds and builds and comes down into a big swoosh and a smash. Then I put the same effect forward right on that smash so it hits and then the overtones gradually fade out and then at a higher and higher register. We timed that so that it's right on that big atom bomb explosion at the beginning of the film, and then as that gong is fading out I just gradually snuck in an English horn and a little bit of music and we built into the main titles. I think on that score we had more men working the control boards on the mix-down, we had more tracks than any film I think ever done before. We had about twenty people working there. We'd go through each reel, and I'd say "now at a hundred a seventy-five feet, sneak in track thirteen, or fifteen, and then bring it in full by two hundred feet, and fade it out at two-thirty five," and plus all the sound effects track that the studio made, and the dialog tracks, plus the music tracks, plus all of these, it was really fun!

Q: What was your overall musical approach to TIME MACHINE? I notice a number of themes, such as the romantic theme for the Eloi people and the harsher theme for the evil Morlocks, as well as a classical melody suggestive of the 1900 time period.

Garcia: Well, you've hit it pretty well. I wanted a motive for different things. I enjoy taking a small fragment of a small theme and working it in to a whole big composition.

Q: Do you recall how you accomplished the interplay between those themes?

Garcia: Well, yes. Yvette Mimieux was a pretty simple young girl at that time, it was her first film. It was also Rod Taylor's first big film. George Pal used two unknowns who eventually became very big. Yvette had to have a rather simple theme, being one of the Eloi, and of course the Morlocks were very dissonant people who lived underground. After I recorded a lot of, I wrote my effects into the score just like they were musical instruments, and then of course we didn't record them with the orchestra score, we recorded the orchestra, which was around 60-65 men, and then I left the places for those effects to fit in.

Q: So most of the effects were added afterwards?

Garcia: Yes, I recorded them before and planned them all very carefully ahead of time and then added them. I had them all either on loops or on tracks that I could dub in later. Some of these effects I ran at half-speed and backwards and through feedback echoes, so they ended up not at all like they started originally.

Q: How closely did George Pal work with you on constructing the kind of music he wanted, or where did you first come upon that approach?

Garcia: Well, of course the first thing he did was give me a script before the film was ready, and he wanted me to come in with some themes. So I thought, "wow, this picture goes a few hundred thousand years into the future, I can imagine some very futuristic wild music, and I went in and I played a few of these things at the piano for him, and he said "very nice, Russ," but he didn't look too enthusiastic! So I went home and wrote a few simpler folk-type themes and the next day I came back and I phoned him and said "I've got a few more things," and he was ecstatic, he thought that was wonderful. But I did use a few of the more modernistic themes later, because when you see them with the actual film they fit, and they wouldn't be offensive to somebody who likes simple folk themes..

Q: You also scored Pal's ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT.
Would you describe your music for this film?

Garcia: It was kind of on the same kick, I went in with the same attitude but the picture was so long that the head of MGM said, when he first saw it, "knock thirty minutes out of this film" and you know what that does to your music, when it's all scored and written! It makes the composer very unhappy, but you do the best you can, with cutting and adapting.

Q: You've received credit for scoring only a few films over the years. What are some of the other musical endeavors you've been involved with during this period?

Garcia: Ive worked on hundreds of films, loads and loads of things I didn't get credit for! Some times a producer or director would be in New York City drunk in some bar and a pianist there might be playing a nice tune that they'd written, and they'd say "I want you to score my next picture!" So, Joe Gershenson would call me in and say, "They've done it again!" And Id have to take his themes, the few little themes that he'd written, and score the film with it.

Scoring films is much more of an art, as you realize, than writing a nice song. I worked with one well-known singer on two films. He gave me a two-bar blues riff, and then an eight-bar little melody and I scored the whole film with it! Very funny, a few weeks after the film came out, I saw him on TV explaining how he'd written this score! But I got paid well for it, sometimes more than the "composer!" They did this often. I hate to mention names of people who got credit for some of the scores that I wrote, it's a policy of mine never to badmouth anyone, but there are a certain amount of charlatans in the business, and there still are, who are smart enough to hire a very good arranger/composer to work them through it. Some very big names, in fact. Of course I got paid very well, but I didn't get credit on a lot of these things.

Q: How would you contrast the working procedures, such as working on television with the heavy pace and all that, compared to working on films, even though like in the Universal factory it was a similar pace?

Garcia: Well, for TV I'd have to write 30 to 40 minutes of music for big orchestra, each week. I'd go in Friday morning and we'd go into the viewing room and they'd show a reel of whatever I had to write for the next week. Maybe the director, sometimes the producer, and sometimes even the stars would be there, and of course the head of the music department of the studio, and the film cutter. We'd hash out where music should be and where it shouldn't be. They always wanted more music than was good for them, because anytime something didn't come off perfectly, they'd say "music will save it." I once even had a producer say "why don't you just score the whole film and we'll cut out what we don't need?!" But I always found it easier to work from the aspect of thinking "what scenes can play without music well, and start from that way. Music is the last thing being scored except for a vocal number or a dance, musical numbers. They always score the musical numbers first so that a singer can get fifteen takes on something and we can take the best few bars here and few bars there and put it together and make them sound much better than they are. But then we'd go through every reel that way, and by the end of the morning, by lunch time, we'd be through and then I'd have lunch and then I'd go to the recording stage after lunch and do what I'd written for that week. And then you think that's such a demanding job, takes such concentration, timing things with the film, you've got to watch your score and the clock and see that you're at the exact place at the beginning of every bar, and listen to what the musicians are playing, and take a glance at the film every once in a while and see what's going on up there, and you'd think you'd be ready to collapse when you're through at the end in the late afternoon. And then the music editor, who's been working in his little office all afternoon on the next show, hands you a bunch of cue sheets for next week, so it's quite a demanding job. I was able to keep my cool all the time, and I never missed a deadline in my life.

Q: What film music things are you involved with currently?

Garcia: Right now I'm not doing anything filmwise. I jumped in my sailboat right at the top of my career at Universal one day, and sailed away. In fact, Joe Gershenson phoned me the day before I left and said, "Russ, I want you to come in and see a film I want you to compose!" I said, "Joe, I told you I'm going on my sailing trip," he said, "postpone it for six weeks, do the film, then take your little trip. But I said "If I postpone it for this, I'll postpone it for something else and pretty soon I'll be not in good enough health or too old to take the trip!" He said "Oh, take your little trip, what can I say? Call me when you get back." That was, what, fifteen years ago?!

Q: But you're still keeping very active, musically.

Garcia: Every year I go to Munich -- I've done this for about twenty years -- and I compose music for TV over there. They give me specific things, like they say "we want two minutes of this type of thing" or "four minutes of that type of thing, and I just write it and we score it with a big orchestra. Then this year I went to Switzerland to work on a show that I'd written with my wife, and we produced it there and put it on, and then I also did an album with symphony orchestra and choir there.

Q: Was that an original composition?

Garcia: Yeah, all of them. Turned out just beautifully. It's actually about the history of the B'hai faith. I'm a B'hai, so I gave my time and such to this free.

And then every year I've been going to Vienna where they give me a big symphony and a jazz band together and I do some big productions with them, which were really fun. There's always something coming up. You'd think they'd put me out to pasture about now, but the phone keeps ringing or the telegrams keep coming in, "would you come here and do this or that?' and so on. And I don't have to do anything that I don't want to, that might be a little distasteful. I do a certain amount of sweetening sometimes, for pop records, the group's gone in and recorded their bass, drums, guitars vocals and such and they want strings or brass or french horns, flutes, whatever, I listen to what they've done and I write these things, and they're always astounded because in three or four hours I can sweeten their whole album. One fella said "you've done more work in four hours than we've done in a year and a half!" They call me "the old craftsman, you know! There's a few of us left.

Q: Do you have any interest in returning to film scoring?

Garcia: Oh, if a real interesting film came along I would enjoy doing it. I could really do some of these science fiction things very well, I feel a lot better than some of them are being done! I've delved a lot into the electronics a bit, too, this whole scene.

Q: What's your view of the current state of film music?

Garcia: Oh, some of it's good. I don't enjoy the Screaming Meamies, if you know what I mean, where it just shouts at you the whole way through. But synthesizers can be used usefully in sound effects and all of these things, can be useful. It seems the music business is going into the hands of somebody who has a little office with about six or seven keyboards in there and a 16-track recording machine that can imitate strings and French horns and flutes. I did an album in December with a singer called John Ford Coley, and there wasn't one live musician on it. We just went in the studio every day and worked out. He wrote all the songs, and I would write string lines, and horn lines, and all these things, and they got quite beautiful string sounds, sad to say, it's putting a lot of musicians out of work. They hook up about four keyboards and equalize them differently and they get some sounds that sound like a hundred and fifteen cellos.

Q: What do you think of the effectiveness of that approach in film music? I know it's becoming a lot more common in motion picture scoring these days, both, I think, for economy and sometimes mingling electronics with the orchestra to create new kinds of sounds. What's your feeling on that?

Garcia: I still love the sound of a beautiful orchestra. There's something about it. I recently worked with a big Fairlight machine on a TV musical in Germany, and you can program every note of every instrument but it comes out sounding like a machine. I don't know what it is, and I still think music should express human emotion and not just be a machine. But that's the way the business seems to be going. Everything goes to extreme, you know, they'll swing completely that way and then somebody will discover a brand new sound, a live orchestra playing!

Q: That's kind of what happened with STAR WARS, because in the 60's they got into the pop music and scored with pop bands and all this, symphony orchestras were almost unheard of. Then John Williams came out with STAR WARS and everybody said "Oh! We gotta have full orchestras now!"

Garcia: Right. I gave John Williams one of his first good jobs when he was seventeen years old. He was an excellent pianist in those days, even at that age he could play good classical piano or jazz, whichever he wanted.

Q: What film did he work on, of yours?

Garcia: At first he worked on the TV series, THE GALE STORM SHOW, and then I did an album featuring six different artists, and Johnny Williams was on piano. I wrote one original and did one standard with each of the artists. It was towards jazz but we used big band with it. And then of course Johnny worked at Universal the same time I did, for many years.


Q: What kind of music do you prefer to write?

Garcia: Well, I love to write modern symphony music. And I love to write jazz. Those are my two fields, modern symphonic and jazz. I conduct quite a few Pops symphony concerts in New Zealand now, and sometimes I'll sneak a little jazz in toward the end of the program. I had been flying to Finland every year to teach composers and arrangers over there, a nine day clinic, but now they've translated both my books into Finnish, so they don't need me any more.

Q: Looking back over your work in films, I'm curious how you would assess your music for films and your place in the history of film music?

Garcia: It's hard to assess your own things, you know. I wasn't one of the world famous film composers, but I worked more than anybody, over the years. I did the work of four or five people most of the time, but a lot of it was behind the scenes .

 

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