‘Star Wars 20th Anniversary: Interview with John Williams’ (1997)

Interview by Craig L. Byrd - (originally published on FSM print edition)

Craig L. Byrd: How did the Star Wars project first come to your attention? How did you become involved?

John Williams: My involvement with Star Wars began actually with Steven Spielberg, who was, in the ’70s when these films were made, and still is, a very close friend of George Lucas’s. I had done two or three scores for Steven Spielberg before I met George Lucas, Jaws being the principal one among them. I think it was that George Lucas, when he was making Star Wars, asked his friend Steven Spielberg who should write the music, where will he find a composer? The best knowledge I have is that Steven recommended me to George Lucas as a composer for the film, and I met him under those circumstances, and that’s how it all began.

CB: How did you feel when you were first contacted about this project? Was it about one film at the time, or all three?

JW: The first contact had to do only with Star Wars. I didn’t realize that there would be a sequel and then a sequel after that at that time. I imagine George Lucas planned it that way and perhaps even mentioned it to me at the time, but I don’t remember. I was thinking of it as a singular opportunity and a singular assignment.

CB: What was your reaction when you read the script?

JW: I didn’t read the script. I don’t like to read scripts. When I’m talking about this I always make the analogy that if one reads a book, a novel, and then you see someone else’s realization of it, there’s always a slight sense of disappointment because we’ve cast it in our minds, and created the scenery and all the ambiance in our mind’s imagination. There’s always a slight moment of disappointment when we’ve read a script and then we see the film realized. Having said that I don’t even remember if George Lucas offered me a script to read.

I remember seeing the film and reacting to its atmospheres and energies and rhythms. That for me is always the best way to pick up a film—from the visual image itself and without any preconceptions that might have been put there by the script.

CB: When you first saw an assemblage of footage, what were you looking at and how did that inspire your work?

JW: I think the film was finished when I first saw it, with the exception of some special effects shots that would have been missing. I remember some leader in there where it would say “spaceships collide here,” “place explosion here,” this kind of thing. But they were measured out in terms of length so that I could time the music to what I hadn’t in fact specifically seen.

The first chore I really had was to spot the music of the film with George Lucas, which is to say sitting with him deciding where we would play the music and what its particular function would be for each scene.

CB: The film set any number of standards. How do you explain the Star Wars phenomenon as it occurred back in 1977?

JW: Well, along with others involved with the film, I was surprised at what a great success it was. I think we all expected a successful film. In my mind I was thinking of it as a kind of Saturday afternoon movie for kids really, a kind of popcorn, Buck Rogers show. A good, you know, sound and light show for young people, thinking that it would be successful, but never imagining that it would be this world-wide international success, and never imagining and even expecting that the sequels would (a) be along and (b) be as successful as they all were.

I can only speculate about it along with others. I remember Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist and teacher and author, who was a friend of George Lucas’s and who went to Skywalker Ranch and talked to George Lucas about the films. He began to write about the mythology, or pseudo-mythology if you like, that formed the basis of these films. I learned more from Joseph Campbell about the film, after the fact, than I did while I was working on it or watching it as a viewer.

Having said all that, I think the partial answer to your question is the success of this film must be due to some cross- cultural connection with the mythic aspects of the film that Campbell described to us later. The fact that the Darth Vader figure may be present in every culture, with a different name perhaps, but with a similar myth attached to it. The films surprised everyone I think—George Lucas included—in that they reached across cultural bounds and beyond language into some kind of mythic, shared remembered past—from the deep past of our collective unconscious, if you like. That may be an explanation as to why it has such a broad appeal and such a strong one.

CB: You would also have to assume that the hero’s journey then would be a part of that.

JW: That’s right. All of these aspects of journey and heroic life and aspiration and disappointment, all of the great human subjects that this seems to touch and tap in on, must be one of the reasons for its great success. I suppose for me as a composer for the film, these forces that I’m struggling to put my finger on must have been at work subconsciously. The music for the film is very non-futuristic. The films themselves showed us characters we hadn’t seen before and planets unimagined and so on, but the music was—this is actually George Lucas’s conception and a very good one—emotionally familiar. It was not music that might describe terra incognita but the opposite of that, music that would put us in touch with very familiar and remembered emotions, which for me as a musician translated into the use of a 19th century operatic idiom, if you like, Wagner and this sort of thing. These sorts of influences would put us in touch with remembered theatrical experiences as well—all western experiences to be sure. We were talking about cross-cultural mythology a moment ago; the music at least I think is firmly rooted in western cultural sensibilities.

CB: It’s interesting that you brought up opera and Wagner. On a certain level it seems like the three scores are almost your “Ring Cycle.” How did it become so interwoven when you originally were only scoring one film?

JW: I think if the score has an architectural unity, it’s the result of a happy accident. I approached each film as a separate entity. The first one completely out of the blue, but the second one of course connected to the first one; we referred back to characters and extended them and referred back to themes and extended and developed those. I suppose it was a natural but unconscious metamorphoses of musical themes that created something that may seem to have more architectural and conscious interrelatedness than I actually intended to put there. If it’s there, to the degree that it is there, it’s a kind of happy accident if you like.

That may be sound deprecating—I don’t mean it quite that way—but the functional aspect and the craft aspect of doing the job of these three films has to be credited with producing a lot of this unity in the musical content the listeners perceive.

CB: The album itself was in the top 20 on Billboard’s charts. That was relatively unheard of for a non- pop score. How did you respond to that?

JW: I don’t think we ever had in the history of the record industry or a film business something that was so non-pop, with a small “p,” reach an audience that size. I have to credit the film for a lot of this. If I had written the music without the film probably nobody ever would have heard of the music; it was the combination of things and the elusive, weird, unpredictable aspect of timing that none of us can quite get our hands around. If we could predict this kind of phenomenon or produce it consciously out of a group effort we would do it every year and we’d all be caliphs surrounded [laughs] with fountains of riches.

But it doesn’t work that way, it’s a much more elusive thing than that. Any composer who begins to write a piece would think, “this will be a successful piece.” But you can’t and we don’t pull them out of the air that way. It also reminds us that as artists we don’t work in a vacuum. We write our material, compose it or film it or whatever, but we’re not alone in the vacuum, the audience is also out there and it’s going to hit them. With all the aspects of happenstance and fad, and the issue of skirt length for example, which is to say style and fad, and what is à la mode? When all of these things come together and create a phenomenon like this, we then, as we’re doing now, look back on it say, “Why did it happen?” It’s as fascinating and inexplicable to me as to any viewer.

CB: It’s also got to be intensely gratifying.

JW: It’s enormously gratifying and it makes me feel very lucky. I’m not a particularly religious person, but there’s something sort of eerie, about the way our hands are occasionally guided in some of the things that we do. It can happen in any aspect, any phase of human endeavor where we come to the right solutions almost in spite of ourselves. And you look back and you say that that almost seems to have a kind of—you want to use the word divine guidance—behind it. It can make you believe in miracles in any collaborative art form: the theatre, film, any of this, when all these aspects come together to form a humming engine that works and the audience is there for it and they’re ready for it and willing to embrace it. That is a kind of miracle also.

CB: It also changed the shape of film music. A lot of filmmakers had really abandoned the idea of big full orchestral scores.

JW: Well, I don’t know if it’s fair to say the Star Wars films brought back symphonic scores per se. We’ve been using symphony orchestras since even before sound. Anyone interested in film knows that music seems to be an indispensable ingredient for filmmakers. I’m not exactly sure why. We could talk about that for days, but mood, motivation, rhythm, tempo, atmosphere, all these things, characterization and so on—just the practical aspect of sounds between dialogue that need filling up. Symphony orchestras were enormously handy for this because they’re elegant and the symphony orchestra itself is one of the greatest inventions of our artistic culture. Fabulous sounds it can produce and a great range of emotional capabilities.

I think if the use of symphony orchestras went out of fad in the ’50s and ’60s for some reason it was just that: it was out of fad. Someone would have brought it back. It’s too useful and too successful not to have it back. I think after the success of Star Wars the orchestras enjoyed a very successful period because of that—wonderful, all to the good. I don’t think we can claim that it was a renaissance really, more than just a change of fad if you’d like.

CB: Or a little goose if nothing else.

JW: Right. A little helping push.

CB: All three scores were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Was there a particular reason why that orchestra was chosen?

JW: We decided to record the music for the films in London. I say we, I think George Lucas decided that. He shot some of the film in Africa and England and did some of his post-production work there. It was part of the plan that we would record there and that was fine with me. I had done Fiddler on the Roof and some other large- scale productions in England and I knew the orchestras very well and liked them; I was very comfortable recording there.

We were going to use a freelance orchestra, as I had done with Fiddler and other films. I remember having a conversation with the late Lionel Newman, who was then the music director of the 20th Century Fox studios, and we were talking about the practical plans of when to record and where and so on, booking facility stages and the rest of it. He suggested to me, “Why don’t we just use the London Symphony Orchestra for this recording? We won’t have to be troubled with hiring freelance players, we’ll just make one contractual arrangement with the London Symphony.”

It also happened at that time that our friend from Hollywood, Andre Previn, was then the music director of the London Symphony. I rang him up and said, “How would it be if we borrowed your orchestra for this recording?” Andre was very positive and very excited—he had no idea what Star Wars was going to be about or what the music would be like, but just the idea that the orchestra would have that exposure seemed to be a good plan for him. So, it was a combination of a lot of nice things. I had worked in England for years and knew the orchestras well; I knew the London Symphony well. They had played a symphony of mine under Previn’s direction a few years before, and played other music of mine in concerts and so on. It was a coming together of a lot of familiar forces in a nice way and I had a good time.

CB: At the risk of sounding like someone from Entertainment Tonight, it sounds like the Force was with everyone involved.

JW: [laughs] The Force did seem to be with us, yes.

CB: How do you see the scores changing from one film to another, through the three films?

JW: The scores do seem unified to me, now that I look back on the four, five or six years involved in making the films, with the distance of time making it seem to be one short period now in my mind. The scores all seem to be one slightly longer score than the usual film score. If that contradicts what I said earlier about writing one at a time, I hear that contradiction, but given the distance of time now I can see that it’s one effort really. The scores are all one thing and a theme that appeared in film two that wasn’t in film one was probably a very close intervalic, which is to say note-by-note-by-note, relative to a theme that we’d had.

I mean we would have the Princess Leia theme as the romantic theme in the first film, but then we’d have Yoda’s music, which was unexpectedly romantic, if you like, in the second film, but not such a distant relative, musically speaking, intervalically/melodically speaking, to Princess Leia’s music. So you can marry one theme right after the other. They’re different, but they also marry up very well and you can interplay them in a contrapuntal way, and it will be part of a texture that is familial.

CB: I’d like to touch on some of the characters’ themes. A lot of people remember the Darth Vader theme. What was the idea behind Darth Vader and how do you see his theme?

JW: Darth Vader’s theme seemed to me to need to have, like all of the themes if possible, strong melodic identification, so that when you heard it or part of the theme you would associate it with the character. The melodic elements needed to have a strong imprint.

In the case of Darth Vader, brass suggests itself because of his military bearing and his authority and his ominous look. That would translate into a strong melody that’s military, that grabs you right away, that is, probably simplistically, in a minor mode because he’s threatening. You combine these thoughts into this kind of a military, ceremonial march, and we’ve got something that perhaps will answer the requirement here.

CB: And then also the hero, Luke Skywalker. What about his theme?

JW: Flourishes and upward reaching; idealistic and heroic, in a very different way than Darth Vader of course, and a very different tonality—a very uplifted kind of heraldic quality. Larger than he is. His idealism is more the subject than the character itself, I would say.

CB: And Han Solo?

JW: I would make similar comments there about Solo’s music. Although they overlap a lot; I mean it’s one thing really in my mind, a lot of it. And of course the Luke Skywalker music has several themes within it also. You’d be testing my memory to ask me how I used them all and where [laughs].

CB: At the Star Wars Special Edition screening in December, when the main theme came on, the audience responded. What were you looking for in the main theme?

JW: The opening of the film was visually so stunning, with that lettering that comes out and the spaceships and so on, that it was clear that that music had to kind of smack you right in the eye and do something very strong. It’s in my mind a very simple, very direct tune that jumps an octave in a very dramatic way, and has a triplet placed in it that has a kind of grab.

I tried to construct something that again would have this idealistic, uplifting but military flare to it. And set it in brass instruments, which I love anyway, which I used to play as a student, as a youngster. And try to get it so it’s set in the most brilliant register of the trumpets, horns and trombones so that we’d have a blazingly brilliant fanfare at the opening of the piece. And contrast that with the second theme that was lyrical and romantic and adventurous also. And give it all a kind of ceremonial… it’s not a march but very nearly that. So you almost kind of want to [laughs] patch your feet to it or stand up and salute when you hear it—I mean there’s a little bit of that ceremonial aspect. More than a little I think.

The response of the audience that you ask about is something that I certainly can’t explain. I wish I could explain that. But maybe the combination of the audio and the visual hitting people in the way that it does must speak to some collective memory—we talked about that before—that we don’t quite understand. Some memory of Buck Rogers or King Arthur or something earlier in the cultural salts of our brains, memories of lives lived in the past, I don’t know. But it has that kind of resonance—it resonates within us in some past hero’s life that we’ve all lived.

Now we’re into a kind of Hindu idea, but I think somehow that’s what happens musically. That’s what in performance one tries to get with orchestras, and we talk about that at orchestral rehearsals: that it isn’t only the notes, it’s this reaching back into the past. As creatures we don’t know if we have a future, but we certainly share a great past. We remember it, in language and in pre-language, and that’s where music lives—it’s to this area in our souls that it can speak.

CB: Can you tell me what it was like working with George Lucas on these three movies?

JW: Working with George Lucas was always very pleasant. For a great innovator and a great creative artist and a great administrator, he’s a very simple, very accessible man. Now people will hear that and they’ll say he’s a very private man, he’s very inaccessible. I suppose that is also true. But when you’re working with him as a colleague sitting in the room, he’s very informal, very approachable, very reachable, and communicates very well.

In discussing the spotting of the music for the film he’s very particular in a way. He would say, “The music could get bigger here, or would be softer there”—you would think these ideas would be obvious, and sometimes they are, but sometimes it’s very helpful to articulate the obvious. Especially in this interpersonal way that he’s able to do it, he has made it a very comfortable thing for me. When he first heard the music he liked it very well, it was encouraging—I felt positive reinforcement always with George. A lot of people will say, “Don’t go in that direction”; it’s always “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” With George, my experience with him was, “That’s right, keep going.” With that kind of collaboration, we get better results I think. He has the secret of this naturally.

He was even then, when he hadn’t done a lot of films, a very experienced filmmaker and a very serious and assiduous student of filmmaking. He brought a lot of knowledge to it and a lot of knowledge about how music could be used.

I found him pleasant, a good communicator, a good leader and an expert filmmaker. And it’s quite a combination of good, positive things I think.

CB: Are there any scenes that stand out for you?

JW: Well I have stand-outs in my mind because of the music that we play in concerts more recently: the asteroid field I remember from, I think it was the second film. It had a musical piece that was like a ballet of flying spaceships and asteroids colliding. That was a very effective and successful scene in my mind both musically and visually.

I remember the finale of the first film, which had that stately procession, where I made a sort of processional out of the middle theme of the main title music—for the beginning, I took the second theme of that and made a kind of imperial procession. And that was a very rewarding musical scene also. So many things, but I would say those two just right off the top of my head.

CB: A lot of people have said that their favorite scene is the cantina scene in the first film. And they often speak of the music.

JW: The cantina music is an anomaly, it sticks out entirely as an unrelated rib to the score. There’s a nice little story if you haven’t heard this, I’ll tell you briefly: When I looked at that scene there wasn’t any music in it and these little creatures were jumping up and down playing instruments and I didn’t have any idea what the sound should be. It could have been anything: electronic music, futuristic music, tribal music, whatever you like.

And I said to George, “What do you think we should do?” And George said, “I don’t know” and sort of scratched his head. He said, “Well I have an idea. What if these little creatures on this planet way out someplace, came upon a rock and they lifted up the rock and underneath was sheet music from Benny Goodman’s great swing band of the 1930s on planet Earth? And they looked at this music and they kind of deciphered it, but they didn’t know quite how it should go, but they tried. And, uh, why don’t you try doing that? What would these space creatures, what would their imitation of Benny Goodman sound like?”

So, I kind of giggled and I went to the piano and began writing the silliest little series of old-time swing band licks, kind of a little off and a little wrong and not quite matching. We recorded that and everyone seemed to love it. We didn’t have electronic instruments exactly in that period very much. They’re all little Trinidad steel drums and out- of-tuned kazoos and little reed instruments, you know. It was all done acoustically—it wasn’t an electronic preparation as it probably would have been done today.

I think that may be also part of its success, because being acoustic it meant people had to blow the notes and make all the sounds, a little out of tune and a little behind there, a little ahead there: it had all the foibles of a not-very- good human performance.

CB: In the Special Editions there’s some added footage. Did that require any rescoring?

JW: George has changed the lengths in some of these films for the reissue because of his improved animatics and so on. It required some changes in the music, mostly additions and subtractions of a small sort. This was all attended to by Ken Wannberg who was originally a music editor and still is today.

The only thing I had to re-record was a short finale for Return of the Jedi, the very end of the film where George created a new scene of Ewoks celebrating. He had some ideas for new music and gave me a film without any sound but with a tempo, with Ewoks dancing and reacting and reveling in their success. You and I are now talking in January 1997; just a few weeks ago, the end of ’96, I went over to London and recorded that music for the new finale. And as a matter of fact this very day that we’re talking, George is dubbing that new music into the final reel of the reissue.

CB: These films are classics. Why tinker with them now?

JW: Well, this is a very interesting question. If the Star Wars Trilogy is a kind of classic, why would we want to tamper with it? I’m not particularly in favor of coloring all the old early films in black and white and might come down on the side of saying, leave things alone. That’s one side of the argument.

The other side of it is true for music also. For example, every time Brahms went to hear one of his symphonies played, he would go in the audience and listen to the symphony, and the next day he would go to the Bibliotheque in Vienna, get the original score out and make changes—he never could leave it alone. Some sage said that a work of art is never finished, it’s only abandoned. That’s really true of all of us; it’s like one of our children. You never finish trying to groom it; the child could be 60 years old, and you’re still saying, “Well you look better if you dress this way.”

So I think George is well within the predictable and understandable and probably correct area of an artist’s prerogative to continue to try to want to improve what he’s done. He complained that he didn’t have the animatics 20 years ago and he wants to do it now. So I think on the one hand don’t tamper with it, and on the other an artist can, should and, I think, must be excused for wanting to continue to improve his or her work. That’s the two answers.

The third answer could be for those traditionalists who want the original the way it is—it’s there. They don’t have to go; they can listen to the Brahms without his latest edition. So they can see the original version and they can also see the new, updated George Lucas wish-list for his work.

I think it’s a wonderful question and the answer has to admit all of these possibilities for us to be fair.

CB: The original negative for Star Wars was in horrible condition.

JW: I didn’t know that.

CB: Because of the stock that they were using at the time. What is your take on the whole idea of film preservation and how that affects both the films themselves and the scores?

JW: I can’t speak with an expertise about film preservation, but I can talk emotionally and not as a serious art historian. I would make this observation: In the last 20 years or so, I’ve been very heartened—I guess we all have—by the consciousness that has emerged about preservation.

We’re suddenly realizing as the 20th century comes to a close, one of the greatest cultural legacies, especially American but around the world also, is our filmmaking, and that we need to be very serious about preservation and about the archival aspects of all of these things that we do. It isn’t only film, it’s also music. The horror stories are myriad about the great MGM library that had Doctor Zhivago original music and Singin’ in the Rain original music and musicals from the ’30s and ’40s—all these scores and orchestra parts that people want to perform now were all destroyed in the fire after some real estate company took over the physical lab of the studio.

The American Film Institute and other interested people, their preservation sentiments are wonderful in film and I think they should extend to original scripts that people have their marginalia on, and the original scores and sketches and orchestra parts of all this material. Imagine our grandchildren fifty, a hundred years from now, the interest that they would find in being able to take the orchestra parts to Wizard of Oz and sit down and play the whole score.

That is something devoutly to be wished. I don’t confuse popular arts with high art. That’s another discussion not suitable for this kind of time. But, however you evaluate the popular art of American filmmaking, as a high, middle, low, wherever you place it in your mind, doesn’t alter the fact that this preservation task is desperately needed. I’m just delighted that we’re seeing in the recent period of years people being very conscious of it, especially young people.

CB: I understand that George Lucas is in pre-production for the first three films. Can we look forward to another John Williams/George Lucas collaboration?

JW: Oh, I very much hope I can do the new trilogy, or as much of it as I’m granted the energy and time to do—I would welcome the opportunity and hope I will be able to do it. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to. And I would look forward to it and I hope that that happens.

CB: Has there been a conversation about it?

JW: Well George is—yes, we talk about it all the time. It’s more in the area of George threatening to say, you know, I’m going to get these three things done so get ready. So the conversation is kind of on that level, and he knows I’m ready and willing and hopefully able and certainly keen to do it.

CB: It sounds like the ultimate hurry up and wait. Thank you very much.

JW: Thank you.