An Interview with Shirley Walker

You have worked with some great composers in the past - Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Trevor Jones, Brad Fiedel and Carter Burwell, which resulted in some memorable film scores like FEAR, BATMAN and BACKDRAFT. You must have some terrific stories. Any you'd like to share?

Shirley: When Danny E., Steve B., and I finished recording the 1st BATMAN score in London, we had worked with the orchestra for a record number of sessions. (I've forgotten the exact number, but it was more sessions than any composer had utilized to record a film score before BATMAN.) The orchestra had gotten a huge farewell card for me. Some of their personalized greetings contained references to the length of time we took to record, such as "here's to one more take".

The next time I was in London recording, the mixer Peter showed me the tennis court he had paid for with BATMAN sessions. In one corner of the court there was a plaque acknowledging the financial contributions of the BATMAN sessions.

Shirley with Hans Zimmer Hans had asked me to help him in London with a replacement score for Disney's 2nd WHITE FANG film. In an emotional climactic final cue, Hans wanted to have a soaring fast woodwind line added over several phrases of his theme. We had a brief discussion about the difficulties involved. Hans played a section of Berlioz' SYMPHONY FANTASTIQUE to demonstrate what he had in mind I could see that Hans thought perhaps I doubted the ability of the London players.

I think I spent almost 3 hours with my woodwind fingering charts figuring out a line that would be performable as well as work harmonically with Hans' tune. As we rehearsed the cue, I was relieved to see that my intricate trading off between all the upper winds was going to work. When I came into the booth to listen to a playback of our final take, Hans turned to me and said with a tone of triumph in his voice "See, I told you they could play it!".

Carter was a terrific help to me when I had gotten stuck writing TURBULENCE. Although Carter puts tremendous thought into the overall concept for his scores, he never seems to actually write any cues for his films until about 2 weeks before downbeat. I knew he'd have some tricks he's developed over time to get around that creative barricade that pops up occasionally. He gave me a wonderful list of humorous things including such advice as " turn off the TV, stop calling all of your friends, and limit the frequency of trips to the refrigerator ".

Are you aware of just how many projects you've worked on that appeal to ultimate fan boys and nerds? BATMAN, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, THE FLASH, SPAWN, SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND? That's quite a devoted fan base!

Shirley: I am just a fan boy nerd at heart. Perhaps by the time I'm 120 years old some of them will have become film directors looking to hire the composer whose music they grew up with.

Has it been difficult for you knowing that your music is in such demand, yet has remained relatively unavailable commercially? (I.E., THE FLASH, BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES, TURBULENCE, etc.)

Shirley: I would love to have everything I've done (with a few notable exceptions!) available in audio only format. However, I'm well aware that I'm hired to write music to be buried under sound FX.

In terms of working with Danny Elfman, how did you perceive the criticism that he wasn't responsible for writing his own music? Steve Bartek has said that he got winks and nudges meaning "we know you really write the music". Has that happened to you?

Shirley: I think Danny's fans know by now that he writes his own music. At the time I worked with him, it was more his envious peers who delighted in keeping alive the notion that he couldn't write. Unfortunately, perception frequently outweighs truth.

You wrote a mammoth cue for NIGHTBREED and received onscreen credit - was that something that Danny insisted upon?

When Danny asked me to write for NIGTHBREED, I explained the means I had come up with to receive end credit for my composing without using the dreaded "additional music by" credit which carries with it the stigma of a partially thrown out score. I needed Danny's consent and support to get my credit and he graciously agreed to give me that support.

Shirley with John CarpenterWorking with John Carpenter must be a thrill. When approaching MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, was an all-out orchestral score the idea from the start?

Shirley: I've enjoyed working with John a great deal. He's well aware of his limitations as a composer, so he asked me to be involved in his last two films, which required orchestral scores or portions of scores with orchestra.

Do you conduct all of your music?

Shirley: I do conduct my own scores most of the time. When I first arrived in Hollywood, I was very intimidated by the recording process. As a result, Dan Carlin conducted the music I composed for THE BLACK STALLION and for the two Lou Grant episodes I wrote for. When I realized that by not conducting my own music, I would be perceived as not being able to conduct, I began doing my own conducting. My most recent expansion of my own musical horizons has been to take conducting lessons from a wonderful conductor, Jeffrey Schindler. When I recorded the music for MYSTERY MEN, I was so exhausted that I asked Jeff to conduct for me on the 2nd day of recording. I was afraid I'd fall asleep at the podium during the slow pieces.

Re-scoring makes me furious!How did your involvement with MYSTERY MEN come about?

Shirley: I was called from the dub stage 10 days before print mastering. The consensus seemed to be that the film just wasn't funny with the existing score.

Dealing with a film that has had another composer write a full score to, only to see it partially replaced must be a delicate situation. How did you approach MYSTERY MEN?

Shirley: The process is simple; it's the lack of time available to make changes that raises the anxiety level for everyone involved. I spent the 1st half of my 1st day screening the film with it's temp track and then going through reel by reel and looking at the existing original score cues. By the end of the 1st day I had notes, the music editors had notes, and the producers had notes on what we felt it was possible to deal with in the amount of time available to us. It's delicate because I'm asked to take a hatchet to an existing score while the film keeps the credit of the 1st composer.

How pressured is a situation when filmmakers and producers come to you and need your help to add something or improve a film?

Shirley: I find it to be the most pressured situation I'm ever in. I'm being asked to create something that will be compatible with the existing music while helping the pacing of the film.

With multiple characters was a multi-thematic plan considered? Or just a single major theme? If you think about it, how would you underscore a character like The Spleen?!

Shirley: There really wasn't time for any conceptualizing. My focus was on bringing more life to the opening of the film and the action sequences.

Will your music from MYSTERY MEN ever see release on CD?

Shirley: I have a promotional CD with my "additional" music that my agency uses to drum up other work.

What are you scoring next?

Shirley: I'm composing an hour of music for a new theme park in Tokyo. I'm contractually prevented from using the D word in any promotion of the work I'm doing for the D word company.

A soundtrack album from BATMAN BEYOND was released by Rhino records. The music is in a different vein than usual for you - Is that one of the joys and challenges for you? Writing music that is somewhat foreign territory?

Shirley: It is always a challenge to deliver the goods no matter the musical style. I do accept the reality that I may not be able to maintain the authenticity of a particular style and hope I'll be able to recognize when that happens.

FINAL DESTINATION had you re-teaming with James Wong and Glen Morgan. Because you have worked with them in the past (SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND) was it any easier scoring their feature?

Shirley: I do think it was easier because we had found what we admired in each others' work and have a language based on experience together.

With FINAL DESTINATION it seems you have taken a more low-key approach.

Shirley: I always take a low-key approach. I like my background music to be invisible unless it's intended to be in your face. I don't think the suspense and death scenes are very low key.

FINAL DESTINATIONIt must have been refreshing to score a main title sequence - as so few films these days aimed at youth markets actually use score to open a film. Was that traditional approach insisted upon by James Wong and Glen Morgan or was it because your music worked so well that it wasn't even a question?

Shirley: The main title sequence was Jim Wong's desire from the beginning. What a treat for me to get to write a piece that calls you into the movie and lets you know something bad is going to happen from the get go. I think I spent the most time coming up with the dark theme and counter melody for the opening, which carries throughout the score.

FINAL DESTINATION was performed by a union orchestra - meaning the performance is fantastic but that an album is an expensive proposition. Will your music see release, commercially or through a promotional disc?

Shirley: Fortunately, New Line decided to make a score only and composer interview audio track for their DVD release. I always put together an excerpt CD in Promo form for my agency to use.

With FINAL DESTINATION what was the key element you wanted to emphasize with your score? Tone, a dominant theme, or..?

Shirley: Glen and Jim are great believers in melody and having music for the characters and situations they find themselves in. Of course, the atmosphere had to be there also, especially for a film with as much suspense building as this film has.

Are you involved with the online filmmusic community? You used to post to, but nowadays composers and industry folks seem to stay away. How important is the Internet for you in terms of keeping up with news and what the fans are saying?

Shirley: I really don't have the time any longer to peruse the online services.

What kind of music do you personally listen to - any film composers in particular?

Shirley: Chris Young and Dave Newman are two of my personal favorites.

Is there one genre that you haven't composed for yet that you wish you could?

Shirley: I recently accepted my first concert commission from the U of Ca Santa Barbara Symphony. It was a fantastic experience. I particularly enjoyed exploring my musical ideas fully, not having to truncate them because they were too expansive to fit within a scene for a movie.

Special thanks to Shirley Walker, Alison Frebairn-Smith and Staci Armao

Final Destination 2WillardBatman BeyondEscape From L.A.Batman Mask Of The PhantasmMemoirs of An Invisible Man

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