‘Superman: The Music (1978-1988) – Interview with Producer Mike Matessino, Part II

By Neil S. Bulk

The last time I spoke with Superman: The Music co-producer Mike Matessino, we devoted the entire conversation to John Williams’s 1978 score. For this conversation we discussed Ken Thorne’s work on the first two Superman sequels. Both scores had been available on LP at the time of each film’s release and were also on a hard-to-find Japanese CD, making this new release a welcome one for Superman and film score fans wanting this music in complete form and in high quality. As with the first Superman, musical mysteries were unraveled, and Mike candidly shared some of his stories and insights.

Neil S. Bulk: Mike, we left the last interview with a bit of a cliffhanger since we never got to discuss the sequel scores toSuperman: The Movie. They all owe a lot to that first film musically, but that’s not to discount the quality of them in any way. They’re all fun listens and all expertly crafted. I’d like to start off talking about Superman II, a film with a very unique and fascinating production.

Mike Matessino: Yes, obviously it’s the one that has been discussed more than any of the others recently.

NSB: Well, it had two directors, was shot over a period of two, almost three years, and by the time it hit the screens in the U.S. some of the footage in it was four years old! Yet with all the behind-the-scenes turmoil and lawsuits, a really entertaining movie was crafted. And along with all of the creative changes John Williams didn’t come back for the second film, but his music was wisely retained. Do you know why the decision was made to retain all of Williams’s material from the first film?

MM: According to Ken Thorne, this was Richard Lester’s directive. For all of the criticism aimed at Lester over the years, he knew that the film was a companion piece to the original, even though his tone and approach was different from Richard Donner’s. He put his own stamp on it, to be sure, but I think he knew he was finishing someone else’s picture.

NSB: It’s an interesting move. It’s not something like the James Bond films where you have a familiar theme, but the rest of the music is original to the film. It’s all adaptation on Ken Thorne’s part, but it works splendidly.

MM: The only piece in Williams’s canon to compare it to at that point was Jaws 2, which was also quite different from the first score. No one had heard The Empire Strikes Back yet, because it was recorded just before Superman II, but that would be another example. I’d guess that’s because the Superman score was so great they didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Superman II really was, maybe even more than Empire, a direct continuation of the first film, so a drastic change in musical approach would have compromised that. Also with Ken, you have someone whose particular area of expertise is adaptation. So all of these factors made it the best way to go, I think.

NSB: Could Lester’s desire for a straight adaptation be the reason Williams decided not to work on this project?

MM: I don’t think we’ll ever know what really went on there, but I can’t imagine that any director offered a John Williams score in 1980 would want him to just repeat a previous score, nor would I think a director would reject Williams if the producers were willing to pay for him. But Lester is a very musically literate man and was known for being very particular about the scoring. Also, when he met with Williams the film wasn’t even finished shooting yet. The entire Metropolis battle still needed to be filmed and maybe Lester’s ideas at that point were a bit different. Maybe he told Williams he’d only need some new music and that existing tracks would be used where possible, which Williams would not have liked hearing. We can only theorize about this. We’ll never have a definitive answer.

NSB: So Ken Thorne’s directive was to adapt the first film’s score. That could be even more of a challenge than writing new music, couldn’t it? Now something familiar has to match all-new timing.

MM: Very challenging and perhaps even a bit thankless because the result can be so easily dismissed. It’s a unique skill and on the Superman sequels you really have two guys truly gifted in this regard, Ken Thorne and Alexander Courage. But specifically with Superman II it was the actual cues adapted to the new film, not just the themes, and with that being the case I think the result is even more impressive if you consider the challenges involved.

NSB: And with the release of this set, we realize Thorne had access to all of Williams’s written material. Every time an expanded Superman album comes out, we get more music from the first film that was only heard in the second.

MM: You’re referring to the assumption a lot of us had years ago that Ken Thorne wrote certain pieces that were actually unused Williams cues.

NSB: Exactly! For instance, I remember watching the long TV cut of Superman: The Movie and hearing the music in Jor-El’s lab. I’d never heard it in the first film before but I knew it from Superman II (“Mother’s Advice”).

MM: I guess that could also apply to the alternates for “The Dome Opens” and “The Mugger,” which were both utilized in Superman II. Ken, like most conductors, has the enviable ability to read a score and hear the whole thing in his head as if the music is being played, so that’s all he needed. Having cue titles on each one, he knew what each piece was written for, even if it wasn’t used, and he just took notes on where in the sequel something might work.

NSB: He even used the alternate “I Can Fly”. It’s a shame he couldn’t find a place for the unrecorded “Trip to Earth” and “Fortress of Solitude” alternates you mentioned last time.

MM: That would have been great, but those cues were very fantasy-oriented and wouldn’t have had a place in the sequel, which was done in a very real-world manner. The reason why those cues were rewritten in the first place was because they are so different from the rest of the first score, so including them would have worked against the idea of maintaining a musical consistency in the sequel. However, having the alternate of “The Dome Opens” was a lucky break for Ken, because it was a cue associated with the Kryptonian villains and he was able to continue that connection.

NSB: With all of the turmoil in getting the film made, it seems once a composer was on board things went pretty smoothly. The score was recorded several months before the film’s release, as opposed to the first film which was being worked on up until the month before release. And Thorne had a picture to work with that was locked. His score doesn’t suffer from the numerous edits that the first film has.

MM: Lester was famous for working fast and didn’t obsess over his films in post-production. Really once the Metropolis battle was put in, the picture was locked and Ken did his score. A lot of flying shots and miniatures came in later. It was the complete opposite of the first film, which was being worked on up until a couple of weeks before the premiere; Superman II basically sat around finished for months.

NSB: And his score made it into the film intact, with the exception of part of one cue. This is the opposite ofSuperman: The Movie where almost every cue was edited or changed in some way.

MM: That was the relationship between Lester and Thorne, going back 20 years at that point. If you look at it from a business standpoint you can kind of understand why the producers made certain decisions about the completion ofSuperman II.

NSB: To make sure this is clear for everyone, even with the success of Superman: The Movie, the Salkinds still owed a lot of money to the investors. Are you saying they hired and depended on Lester’s reputation to get the movie completed not only as scheduled but to also be a genuinely good movie?

MM: Naturally they wanted a good movie, but they couldn’t financially afford to let a director with whom they didn’t get along just keep going until he was satisfied. We’d have ended up with a different movie, one with Marlon Brando in it and a John Williams score, but the producers would never have had a chance of recovering financially. So they did what made the best business sense, which was to bring in a fast-working director they got along with, cut a few corners and come out of it with the ability (hopefully) to make more movies. The movie business is a marriage of art and commerce, but the latter is the dominant partner in the relationship.

NSB: Getting back to the score in the movie, in terms of editing it’s almost totally untouched. However, the music mix in the film isn’t quite right. Can you elaborate on that? I know you discovered some inconsistencies while working on this project.

MM: The Superman II score had a very bad reputation for a quarter of a century, and mostly because of how the music sounded in the film. I have no explanation for why it happened, but somewhere after John Richards, the recording engineer, did his mixdown, the center channel and percussion stem became louder in relation to the left and right tracks, which overemphasized the winds and percussion to the detriment of the rest of the orchestra. At other times the center and right tracks of music seem switched. The 6-track made for the 70mm prints was better – and this was used for the most recent DVD – but the problems were still there. The album was done according to LP and home stereo standards of the day but was still ultra-conservative for that time and completely misrepresentative of how the original recording sounded. We were able to go back to that and finally present it in all its glory.

NSB: So to borrow a phrase from the movie, for the first time, everything’s clear.

MM: Actually I’d go as far to say that the original recordings for Superman II and III are more stable than the one for the first film.

NSB: Stable? What do you mean?

MM: They were in better physical shape, the mix is more consistent as is the overall sound quality. For the original film the element was a bit shaky and it needed a lot of attention, and it wasn’t the greatest recording in the world to start with.

NSB: So the two Thorne scores didn’t require the level of restoration as the first score?

MM: They didn’t. Superman II was the first one I worked on, and it went very fast. John Richards is a terrific recording engineer. His sound is always very clean and he does a full mixdown after the sessions are over, as opposed to Eric Tomlinson who recorded live 3-track mixes on his Williams scores which were then edited and dubbed.

NSB: Were these scores edited together from various takes to perfect the performance?

MM: The Williams original was, but on Thorne’s scores he pretty much got complete takes of each cue that everyone has happy with.

NSB: It’s a top-notch performance. Over the years there was a lot of unfair criticism about this score when compared to the first one, and I’ve never quite understood the reasoning. The performance of the main title for instance is fantastic. It’s very exciting.

MM: It doesn’t have the reverence that Williams approached it with. It’s much lighter and breezier, but what it’s doing is acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it. There was no obligation to “sell it” because that had already been done, and it was already so established that it seemed okay, or even right, to be a little playful with it and less formal.

NSB: Some of it is light, but then you have something like all of the music on the moon and it’s pretty sinister. The same can be said for the diner fight. These are both Donner sequences though, so could that have something to do with it?

MM: I was referring to the main title, but the score as a whole does have its serious moments. The diner fight is the darkest moment of the story.

NSB: What are some of the stand out moments for you with this score?

MM: I enjoy all of it, but to list a few cues that come to mind: “Superman to Paris,” “Spacecraft Wrecked,” “Lex Escapes,” “Relaxing at Niagara,” “Mother’s Advice,” “To Bed-Mt. Rushmore,” “Fight in Diner” and “TV President Resigns–Clark to Fortress.” And then everything from the battle in Metropolis is terrific, especially the start when the villains burst from the building. And I’ve also mentioned a few times the cue “Superman Flies Off,” where Ken uses a dark version of the Personal theme and also the motive from the first film’s comic book introduction, and then brilliantly goes into “Trajectory Malfunction.” In general I like that he made so much use of the Personal theme, which could easily have been neglected as it was used only briefly in the original.

NSB: The wrecked spacecraft music is nice because the album always sort of left you hanging, since it cut off right before this was supposed to start. The big surprise for me was “East Houston Café” found on disc 8. I like all of the source music he wrote, but this one has a pleasant upbeat feel to it. Of course not even knowing it existed until hearing this set might have something to do with my surprise.

MM: Don’t you like ”Pick Up the Pieces”?

NSB: Oh I do, but this was such a cool thing to hear.

MM: All of Ken’s source music is cool stuff.

NSB: And similar to the first film, a good portion of it was replaced with a pre-existing song.

MM: Actually it’s the opposite. One Williams source piece was used in the first film and the others were replaced, but in the second film they kept all of Ken’s pieces except one.

NSB: You’re right. “Pick Up the Pieces” just seems so prevalent to me.

MM: Maybe because it’s on the radio all the time.

NSB: That could be it. I think that song is played on some radio station every hour of every day! How involved was Ken Thorne with this reissue?

MM: Not involved on a day-to-day basis, but fully supportive and interested. He’s a very warm, approachable, funny guy, still amazingly youthful, and genuinely thrilled that this was happening. It was great to be able to talk to him during the process, see what he remembered, and so forth. Both he and John Richards approved the material before we mastered it. I was glad to get a bio of Ken in the book as well, because there hadn’t been one that detailed anywhere, and also having his quotes throughout was great.

NSB: Were there any fascinating anecdotes about these movies that he told you that weren’t in the book?

MM: I don’t recall any. Ken’s a pretty straightforward guy and my email interviews with him were published in their entirety in Film Score Monthly. At the same time, he’s humble in his own way. In studying the Superman II score closely I was very impressed with how sensitively chosen the cues were and I was surprised to find that Ken either doesn’t remember specifics or just won’t give himself credit for the amazing job he did. To him adaptation comes naturally, and the skill shows in this score. There are moments where a cue not only works great, but appropriately recalls the scene where it was used in the original film.

NSB: What are some of the cues you’re referring to?

MM: “Suspecting Lois Takes the Plunge” is based on the first part of “To the Lair,” and in each case the scene builds to someone jumping, Clark in the first film and Lois in the second. Then there’s “Clark Exposed as Superman,” which uses the Personal motive, specifically the first score’s “Clark Loses Nerve,” and the moment where he removes his glasses is great because of the music, which makes you instantly recall the first film where he did the same thing, realizing that he actually felt comfortable enough around Lois to relax his disguise. Later on, when the villains burst into the Daily Planet, Ken uses “The Dome Opens” (the revised film version, not the alternate), which reminds you of their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone and what is driving their search for the son of Jor-El.

NSB: Not to take anything from this, but is there a chance the film was temped with Superman: The Movie?

MM: I suppose it’s possible, but that would mean that whomever did the temping was sensitive to these things, and I don’t think this was the case. Lester didn’t like to do temp scores. But he did communicate what he wanted musically very clearly to his composers. He was the anti-Ridley Scott in this regard.

NSB: Which is why, with the exception of part of one cue, everything is in the film. And the only reason “Bored Zod” wasn’t used was because the scene was changed slightly. Can you talk about that “Score Restore” you did for FSM? How did you know the scene was cut?

MM: That was a scene Donner directed, except for the very beginning before Lex comes in, and the music obviously went with the long version of the scene and the footage was cut after scoring. The interesting thing is that this could mean that Stuart Baird actually edited some of the Superman II scenes before he and Donner left the project.

NSB: That’s something that’s never been clear to me. If footage was coming in from the main unit, he must have been cutting right along with them, right?

MM: You’d have to look at the schedule. The logical thing to do would be to keep Superman II footage at the lab until the first film was finished. But when shooting on the first film kept continuing after they decided to stop work on the second, it’s possible Baird had time cut the diner scene or the scenes with E.G. Marshall. We just don’t know and he doesn’t remember.

NSB: However, he is credited on the DVD of “The Richard Donner Cut” of Superman II.

MM: That seemed to be more because he would have edited the movie if Donner had finished it. There was a sense of propriety about that project, which I also think is why it mostly used Williams’s recording tracked and edited and very little of Thorne’s work, even though, in my opinion, Thorne’s recording fits the tone of Superman II better, even Donner’s version. We’ve certainly proven that it could sound good, and I personally think they should have used it rather than butcher the Williams score. But to get back to the editing, if you look at the theatrical version you’ll see that the listing for Lester’s regular editor, John Victor-Smith, is in the end credits only, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and production designer John Barry–who were both deceased before the film was released–are credited prominently and in precedence over Bob Paynter and Peter Murton. I think this shows that Lester was very respectful of the fact that he was completing a movie started by somebody else, and the musical consistency is further evidence. This doesn’t mean I don’t wish that things could have worked out as originally planned, with Donner completing the film, because I do. But I think Richard Lester is far too vilified.

NSB: It seemed when it was first released, the general perception was that Superman II was a better movie than the first one.

MM: That was what most people said at the time. It’s a breezy comic-book action movie, which average moviegoers had more fun with than the formal presentation of a myth, which was the first film. But myths last longer than popcorn.

NSB: They’re both fun movies to watch, the second one comes across as a lighter adventure, which is why the lighter tone of the music works so well. Both Richard Lester and Ken Thorne came back for Superman III. For this film both were able to remove the shackles from the original 1978 film. Superman III is very much a Richard Lester film. Would you also say that it’s very much a Ken Thorne score, done in his own style?

MM: Yes. Ken had a freer hand on Superman III and on that one he decided when to use Williams’s original, as in the factory fire and the junkyard fight. The computer montage is obviously Straussian, so there Ken exercises his classical skills and in the comedy writing he plays around with some of the instruments he likes to feature. He then went all out on the climactic action music, which I think is quite good.

NSB: Yes, the music is really good once they start ballooning down. I enjoy the whole score, but the stuff in the third act is very exciting. The thing I’ve always wanted to know about this movie was the genesis of the “Love Theme”. Can you shed some light on that?

MM: Giorgio Moroder was hired to write songs for the movie. Lester didn’t like them much and rejected many of them, but he happened to like his “Love Theme,” the melody for which is heard on the album as the Helen St. John piece. So he asked Ken if he could base his Lana theme on Moroder’s, so that’s how it came about and why it’s credited to both of them.

NSB: Do you know why Moroder was approached for this? Was Thorne asked to write any songs for the film?

MM: I think the Salkinds heard how many movie projects Moroder was working on and they saw which way the wind was blowing and hired him. There was a huge trend at that time, much to the dismay and frustration of score fans, to load up the movies and the soundtrack albums with songs. Moroder was hot that year with Flashdance and Scarface. Ken just did his normal source music in addition to the score, and was asked to base his love theme on Moroder’s.

NSB: You just mentioned the original album. That really didn’t help the score’s reputation as being something other than a John Williams rehash. It had the “Main Title” and Gus’s Theme (both original Thorne compositions) but wasn’t the rest of it adapted material from the first film?

MM: Yes, it had the factory fire and most of the junkyard fight, and on the B side of the LP were the Moroder songs. It drastically underrepresented Ken’s work on the film. He didn’t care much for the film, but he was always disappointed in the soundtrack album.

NSB: However, the factory fire cue was the first official release of the alternate “Dome Opens!”

MM: That is true! And between that and Superman II’s LP release it was the only way to get any of “Helicopter Sequence” until the Varése re-recording and the Rhino release many years later.

NSB: Did I tell you that I recently decided to take a break from all of this Superman music and while listening to the radio, the DJ’s intro was the factory fire music from Superman III! The best laid plans….

MM: Followed by “Pick Up the Pieces,” no doubt.

NSB: I’m sure if I’d stuck around that would have been played. Superman III was another film that had most of its score left intact in the film. Again, is it because Lester is very specific about what he wants?

MM: On that film it seemed he relied on Ken’s judgment. Lester wasn’t sure about the main title music after it was recorded and after dubbing into the movie he told him he liked it a lot.

NSB: It’s a fun piece.

MM: It was right for the scene, which was kind an odd one.

NSB: But that was the only title sequence intended for the movie, wasn’t it? I only ask because another version was shown on television.

MM: For that they just took the credit stock and superimposed it over the moving star optical and tracked in the end credit music. This was to pad out the running time to accommodate extra footage and also to entice viewers with something that felt more like the first two films. One advantage of it, I think, is that the comedy sequence plays better without the distraction of the credits, which physically covered up some of the jokes in the theatrical version. But the music was designed for the credits, in particular the quote of the Williams fanfare when the ”S” appears, so it’s odd whichever way you look at it.

NSB: So if anyone out there thinks the TV version main title is missing, it’s just the end title tracked in. That makes sense.

MM: The book details everything. We tried to be very thorough about the different versions of the film, music that was used and not used, alternates, and so on. We definitely dug as deep as possible to figure everything out, but the first three were all really just a warm-up for Superman IV, which was a full-blown archaeological expedition.

NSB: I think that’s a great place to leave off, and we can pick up with Superman IV in our final session.

MM: Excellent! Looking forward to it!

Next time, John Williams returns to the Superman series with Alexander Courage and two orchestras!  Intrigued?  Our discussion of Superman music will conclude shortly!