Spielberg and Williams on Saving Private Ryan
At work again, he and John Williams exult in their admiring duet of 24 years
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 02/24/98
`Meeting Steven Spielberg was the luckiest day of my life,” said John Williams, smiling.
The feeling is clearly mutual. Sitting at Williams’s side Sunday, eating a watercress salad, Spielberg said, ”I crave Johnny’s company and his friendship. And his music still makes me break out in goose bumps. I know I cannot find anybody better.”
Williams met Spielberg in 1973, so the two men are celebrating the first 25 years of a professional collaboration that has brought each to the pinnacle of his profession.
The goose bumps continued to develop over the weekend when Williams, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus recorded the 55-minute score for the newest Spielberg/Williams collaboration, ”Saving Private Ryan.” Spielberg was present for most of the three days of recording at Symphony Hall, documenting every step with his hand-held video camera. One of the film’s stars, Tom Hanks, came in to observe Saturday.
Spielberg explained that the film, due for release this summer, is based on a true story from World War II. ”It’s about four brothers, three of whom were killed within 48 hours, while the fourth is unattainable behind enemy lines. The Army dispatched a squad to find and rescue the remaining son so that he could go back to his mother in Iowa.”
In a process called ”spotting, ” Williams and Spielberg repeatedly watch a rough cut of a film and decide mutually what scenes should have music. For this film, it was decided to spin the music out in long sequences called cues, some of them eight or nine minutes each. In the closing credits sequence, ”Hymn to the Fallen,” a ghostly tattoo of military drums, propels the elegaic music; a Bach-inspired bass line lends solidity and solemnity. There is a piercingly sad duet for trumpets (Timothy Morrison and Thomas Rolfs), who played antiphonally from the balcony, and the horn (Richard Sebring) has a prominent solo part throughout.
The music is profoundly moving – Williams said he was so devastated by the ending of the film that he hardly knew how to proceed. Spielberg, in turn, was so moved the first time he heard the music that he said he fantasized about leaving out the credits so the audience could just sit, listen, and reflect in the darkened theater. ”That would be illegal of course,” he added with a grin.
There’s a lot of pressure when the red recording light is on and the clock is ticking at about $100,000 an hour, but the players nailed their solos every time. Williams did everything he could to create a reassuring atmosphere. ”Avoid anything grandiose or operatic,” he said, ”while still giving more,” and everyone knew exactly what he meant. The session provided shining examples of people knowing their business – and loving what they are doing.
To introduce one episode, Williams asked Hanks to read aloud an eloquent letter of consolation from Abraham Lincoln to a Massachusetts mother who had lost five sons in the Civil War, a letter that figures in the movie.
”It is a pleasure to be performing,” the lanky Lincolnesque actor said, ”and in such a hall.” He read the letter so affectingly that the orchestra responded with an appreciative shuffle of its feet.
Many good ears
In the basement recording booth, Williams had very sharp ears working for him – sound producer Shawn Murphy, and Williams’s own longtime editor, Kenneth Wamberg, was at his side. And Spielberg, a former school band clarinetist, also boasts a very good ear. In his liner notes to the recording of the Oscar-nominated `Amistad’ soundtrack, Spielberg wrote that Williams’s music surprises him every time, yet the director also has a very clear sense of what he wants, of what’s effective. At one point, he asked Williams if the horn could not move to its last note. Williams understood instantly that Spielberg wanted the harmony left unresolved in order to lend poignancy and possibility to a visual transition in the film.
Williams’s ears were the sharpest of all – often he would make a quick revision in his score to get just the effect he wanted. ”Sopranos,” he said to the chorus, ”hold on to your G. I want it to rub irritatingly against the F-sharp.” He retuned drums, and removed wind parts, when his inner ear told him their harmonics might interfere with the dialogue.
In 1973, Williams was 40 and long established as a successful composer of music for films; Spielberg was 23 when he called to arrange a lunch meeting. He had directed a Joan Crawford television hour and a film for television, and he was about to direct his first theatrical feature, ”The Sugarland Express.”
Williams recalled, ”I felt like a Dutch uncle, because he looked as if he were all of 16. He was beardless then, and so polite, sweet, and bright.”
At that point Spielberg was auditioning for Williams. ”I had seen two recent movies where the music especially impressed me, `The Reivers’ and `The Cowboys,’ and both of those scores were by John Williams,” Spielberg said. ”I wrote a screenplay listening to my LP of the soundtrack of `The Reivers’ – in a way it was based on the music, which I heard so often I wore the record out and had to buy another one. The script never got made. Back then nobody was interested in my big inspirations. I thought, `If I ever get a shot at directing a movie, I really want to see if this guy will write the score.’ And when I was assigned to `Sugarland Express,’ the first thing I did was get in touch with John.”
Williams was impressed that Spielberg could whistle all the principal themes from scores he had half-forgotten himself. ”I remember I whistled `Make Me Rainbows’ from the score to `Fitzwilly,”’ Spielberg said, whistling it again, in tune and in rhythm, to prove it. Williams recalled that Spielberg played clarinet on the soundtrack to ”Jaws.” ”There was a scene with a high school band, which was hard to do – good musicians are not effective when they are trying to play like amateurs who are trying to be good.”
It is certainly true that when most people recall Spielberg movies, they hear as well as picture them, and a key part of what they hear is Williams’s music.
”I hear all my movies,” Spielberg said. ”It has taken me years to get all I hear and see onto the screen.”
Spielberg, 50, recalled that his earliest years came just before the advent of television, during the last days of network radio.
”My father rigged up a crystal set in my room, and every night I went to sleep listening to radio shows – `Beulah’ and `Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ and `Inner Sanctum,’ which terrified me. I must have been between the ages of 2 and 4 when I was listening to all those shows. When you listened to radio in a darkened room, you were looking inside your own imagination; radio inspired the imagination. Later we had the first TV on our block – we didn’t have any money, but my dad became a TV repairman, so we had one. There was an amber light that let you know when the set was ready to come on, and my little job was to watch that amber light.”
Restoring art of scoring
The Spielberg/Williams collaborations represented a major step toward restoring classic film scoring, which had taken a sidestep during the 1960s. ”I really believe that John brought back a lost art which was one of the great achievements of the ’30s and ’40s. It all finally came to a full stop with the soundtrack of `Easy Rider’ in 1969. That’s when the `needle-drop’ soundtrack became popular, collages of old hit songs that made movies sound like top-40 radio stations. The last great old-style score before John was `Spartacus’ in 1960, a film that represented the end of an era in several respects. Elliptical films, vignette films became popular, and the big entertainments that the movies had created to compete with television were over. I had to stop buying movie soundtrack albums because there weren’t any I wanted to hear anymore!”
”Well, don’t forget `Lawrence of Arabia,”’ Williams chimed in – conversations between the two men tend to spin a glittering thread through the mazes of movieland.
The first film score recorded in Boston was ”Duel in the Sun” in 1946. Mention of this led Spielberg to add that his California home was formerly owned by that film’s producer, David O. Selznick, who married its star, Jennifer Jones, in the back yard.
”The house has an amazing history,” Spielberg said. ”Selznick commuted to make `Gone With the Wind’ from that house, and that’s one of the reasons I bought it. I’ve seen the guest books from that era, and I feel the presence of many revelers in that house.”
This led Williams into a favorite Selznick story, which in turn led to a merry-go-round of stories about Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred composer, Bernard Herrmann, who was a mentor and friend to Williams. Spielberg met Herrmann on the very last day of the composer’s life. ”I complimented him extravagantly on all the great music he’d written and how much of an inspiration he had been to me, and he let me talk on and on before he said just one thing. `How come you’re using John Williams all the time?”’
”Saving Private Ryan,” which also stars Matt Damon, represents the third time Williams and Spielberg have recorded a soundtrack in Symphony Hall. Music for the reedited version of ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was recorded here, as was most of the ”Schindler’s List” score.
”The session players we have in Los Angeles are fantastic, and they have amazing skills,” Spielberg said. ”Half of them are graduates of the Tanglewood Music Center,” Williams added, proprietarily.
”But there are also advantages to working with an orchestra that has played together for years,” Spielberg said, to explain why the decision was made to come here for ”Saving Private Ryan.” ”This is a movie about a company of soldiers, and it seemed appropriate to use an experienced company of musicians who are all virtuosos. Also we really wanted the sound of this room, Symphony Hall. On a soundstage you can get acoustically correct sound, but you don’t hear the air. Here you get a rich, warm sound off the walls and ceiling, and you do hear the air; Symphony Hall is an instrument too. On `Sciindler’s List,’ we did some cleanup work in a studio in Hollywood, and even to my untrained ear the difference between the two kinds of sound was night and day, and I’ve wanted to come back ever since. Both of us felt this was the right film to bring to Boston.”
The orchestra’s long familiarity of working with Williams was also a factor. ”I’ve never seen John leap to a take after so little rehearsal,” Spielberg said with admiration. ”Of course John still likes to hone the takes until the music sounds just the way he wants it to.”
Coaxing the right sound
And Williams does know how to coax the sound he wants out of his players. Other film conductors work with clicktracks; Williams had a monitor showing the film at his feet and a huge stopwatch ticking away next to the podium, but he conducted freestyle, allowing the players more expressive freedom. ”Play it quietly – but loving it,” he said to the cellos. ”That’s it! The color you just got is the thing,” he said.
”Saving Private Ryan” is scheduled for release in July. By then Williams will be in residence at Tanglewood, where he and Andre Previn will supervise a seminar on film composing. Spielberg said that after finishing the film, he plans to take a year and a half off. ”I want to relax with my family and lead a normal life, to the extent that is possible in Hollywood.”
Neither man can say whether the revolution and restoration they created will be permanent, or whether they will one day be perceived as dinosaurs themselves. ”Well, if that happens, John will be the most commercially successful dinosaur in history,” Spielberg quipped. The director of ”Jurassic Park” knows whereof he speaks. ”Well, this dinosaur’s tail is not so long,” said Williams, wryly, ”and his teeth are not so sharp any more,” and you wouldn’t believe him for a second.