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Brad Fiedel: "Borrowing Time" To Return To The World Of "The Terminator"

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I should start by humming the Terminator theme, but it wouldn't have the same effect that Brad Fiedel had with his awesome setup of synthesizers. As you may have guessed, Brad is indeed the composer of one of the more kick ass themes in movie Sci-Fi history, but aside from that he's not just a composer of great films such as "True Believer", "Blue Steel", "Fright Night", "True Lies" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" to go along side his solid work for television in "Midnight Caller" and "From The Earth To The Moon" for HBO.

Aside from those memorable works, Brad is also the star of his own one man show, a memoir about his work in Hollywood which is receiving rave reviews and is just started to open in Santa Barbara. Judging by the video included on this page, it is a fun and engaging good time with a very insightful and well meaning play about his experiences as a Hollywood composer. An immense talent that I personally miss in today's films and in a way with his iconic score for "The Terminator", he was the innovator of how some film scores are today in a very positive way.

For this very special interview with Brad, he candidly shares with me his thoughts on "The Terminator" 30 years later, working with Director James Cameron, looking back on his film projects such as "True Believer", working with the late Shirley Walker and his play of course. So sit back and read the thoughts of this wonderful and insightful human being.

Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and composing.

BF: I grew up in a very creative family. My father was a musician and my mom was a modern dancer. My grandfather and many others back several generations on my father’s side were musicians. I started improvising at the piano at a very young age and was constantly exposed to a wide range of music. Playing and singing were just a natural form of expression in my family. In my early teens when the Beatles appeared, playing guitar, being in a band and writing songs took over (a great way to get girls for a non athlete). I also always loved movies and the music that was in them.

This year of course, especially for die hard Terminator fans the 30th Anniversary of “The Terminator” (which is hard to believe) Let’s look back a bit, how did you get involved with the film?

BF: One of my agents at the time sent some of my music to James Cameron and he came to my studio and showed me the film.

Your score is still an amazing work considering the technological advances at the time. Can you tell us about the approach you took in writing the score for the film?

BF: The morning after seeing the film, I woke up and started improvising in my studio with my feelings about the film rumbling around inside of me. I sat at the piano and the melodic theme came out pretty quickly. The underlying pulse came in the next few hours as I played with different sounds to represent the mechanical heartbeat of the Terminator. It was a visceral process, not an intellectual one. I started to hear the sound of the score in my head and did whatever I could to find ways to make sounds that were as close as possible to what I was imagining. I wanted the cold metallic quality of the Terminator and rhythms that kept the forward propulsion as well as the poignant heart that comes up representing the general struggle of the humans against the machines as well as the more intimate love between the two humans who hold the creation of hope within them. The clunkyness of the technology at the time made it a challenge to achieve some of the things I was imagining. Ironically this was a similar challenge for Jim as well in the area of visual effects. Anyway, I cobbled together everything the best I could, and some of the limitations actually added a certain flavor to the score that worked in its favor.

Your iconic theme for the film is one just simply unforgettable and easily the most memorable in film history. How did you come up with it?

BF: Thank you for that compliment, but I believe it’s way too extreme. In the history of film music there are many wonderful, very memorable themes. If my theme for the Terminator is one of them I am very grateful.

All told, how much music did you record for the film?

BF: I think about it was about 90 minutes.

Looking back after 30 years, how do you feel about the film now in your own words.

BF: It was a breakthrough in telling a meaningful science fiction story in a way that was so relentlessly moving forward while engaging the senses and heart of the audience. Jim was determined not to romanticize the heroics of the characters too much. He was very clear that he felt too much use of melody would take people into their heads about what the music was saying instead of just riveting them to what was going on in each moment. This is just an example of how deeply he considered each element of the film down to the tiniest details. So, even though he was working on a tight budget and schedule, he really created something that impacted the audience in a big way and inspired all of us working with him to do our best work in support of his vision. The action and everything else in the picture ultimately serve the story. It raised the bar in so many ways for the “action” pictures to come.

There were two albums released for the score. One that featured a couple of songs and the other was a complete representation of your great score. Do you hope to see it re-released again so that fans may enjoy your great work?

BF: Unfortunately, I didn’t have any control over the release of the entire score that was originally released as the “ definitive” edition. They took my 24 track tapes and mixed them without my input. I’m glad that people enjoy it, but its pretty hard for me to listen to since a score like this can be greatly affected by subtle changes in the levels of the tracks and the way they’re equalized and the kind of reverb that’s used. But I‘m extremely picky, and the bottom line is that I’m always happy to see the fans getting a chance to experience the music in any way they can. Not sure about a reissue at this point, that’s really up to others to decide.

You of course came back to score the sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” seven years later. Was it easier or harder to come back to scoring the film after doing very diverse projects such as “True Believer”, “Fright Night”, “Immediate Family” and “Blue Steel” to name a few?

BF: It was an interesting process. T2 was a different kind of movie than the original in many ways and I needed to find a way to be true to the through line of the story and the fact that is was a sequel while adjusting to the differences. I enjoyed the challenge and the fact that music technology had progressed alongside visual effects technology so I could support the new film in a way that reflected the amazing images that Jim created as well as the change of the Terminator to a hero who we needed to care about.

“T2” required a much bigger, somewhat contemporary futuristic sound. How did you build on everything you already established in the original film?

BF: Aside from the main theme, it was quite different. I used a lot of sounds I created on two Fairlight CMI’s that were acoustic samples in origin (brass, strings, voices, various percussive hits and other assorted organic sounds I recorded). Then I morphed them pretty extremely into a sound vocabulary that I felt supported the film. We actually considered adding full orchestra to the score for a while, but decided against it partially due to schedule limitations and the fact that we liked the way the score was working as it was.

Was there at one point with this score, that you personally said to yourself. Let’s go bigger and bigger?

BF: I wanted size right from the start, but also more warmth and depth in some of the colors than the original. Starting with a lot of acoustic sources helped with that. I don’t think it ever got as big as I would have liked it to be. Present technology, both in the music realm and in the theater sound systems, works much better for the size and depths of sounds, especially in the very low and very high frequencies.

What was it like working with Director James Cameron?

BF: I feel privileged to have worked with Jim on three films. It was not always easy. He is super committed to every detail of the films he makes. That and the level of work he does and the way he is always pushing the limits in all departments make it an inspiring if somewhat nerve-wracking experience to collaborate with him. Our actual work together mostly took place on a one to one basis in my studio and it was a great creative experience. He gave me the space to come up with my ideas from a clean slate (not having to hear any temp tracks). We were almost always in perfect sync as far as what the films needed musically, and the adjustments he asked for were usually spot on. On T2, some of the more atonal approaches I was using threw him a bit at first, but I convinced him that we needed to push into some less comfortable musical areas to support the ground breaking visuals of the T-1000 liquid metal morphing moments. It was also liberating working in a situation where you know the person you’re working with actually has final say (this is rarely the case in Hollywood, where rule by committee often happens).

Let’s go back to “Fright Night” and look back on that a little bit since the film has become a true 80’s horror classic and your first film after the success of “The Terminator”. How did you get involved with the film?

BF: I believe Tom Holland requested a meeting with me on the film. Also, Gary LeMel, the head of music at the studio, appreciated my work on The Terminator.

Do you find it difficult for your work to compete with pre-recorded music when it’s used in a particular film especially one like this one?

BF: Weaving a score among tracks of contemporary songs (or period ones) is one of the skills a film composer must possess. I enjoy the challenge. An extreme example for me was the Big Easy. It was fun finding a way to make my score almost invisible amongst all the great New Orleans tracks in that film.

A limited edition soundtrack of your terrific score finally was released a few years ago by Intrada Records after decades of demand. How did you feel when it was finally released?

BF: It was great to have that score get out there. It was fun to hear it again and be reminded how out there it was. Some of it was pretty radical. I used a MIDI modified acoustic piano which allowed me to improvise while a wide variety of instruments and textural sounds followed along and were recorded in a way that which I sorted out during the mixing process. During some of the final scenes it was like I was at the piano accompanying a silent movie like they did in the old days, only the technology allowed me to build on in a new way. Ross Levinson really wailed on his electric violin solos! A huge contribution.

Looking back on this film in your own words, how do you feel about it now?

BF: I always thought it was a great combination of a classic hero’s journey/coming of age story, comedy, romance and horror. I think the studio at the time didn’t want to confuse the audience in the marketing of the film and narrowed their campaign too much to portray it as a horror film.

I want to dip into your television work and in particular one of my favorite childhood series, “Midnight Caller” in which you wrote one of the greatest themes I’ve ever heard which is sultry, mysterious and exciting. How did you come on board such a solid show that in reality should’ve lasted a lot longer?

BF: I had worked with producer Bob Singer on other projects.

How did you come up with the theme for it?

BF: Don’t have a clear memory on that. Bob had some ideas about the kind of music he wanted and I liked the idea of the muted trumpet and the slinky bass part.

You also worked on the great HBO Mini-Series “From The Earth To The Moon” in the late 90’s. Please tell us about your experiences working on such a terrific series.

BF: It was fun meeting with Tom Hanks, and obviously the quality of the series was great. Producer Tony To was great to work with. All the folks on the show were top notch and gave me a lot of space to do my thing. I think it was the first thing I did after moving to Santa Barbara so it was also interesting being at a bit of a distance from the Hollywood vibe while I worked on that.

I want to go back and talk about one of my favorite films that you scored in the very underrated “True Believer” starring James Woods and the red hot Robert Downey, Jr. I love the music that you wrote for the film. How did you come on board the film?

BF: I knew Joe Ruben, the director and he particularly liked the piano version of the Terminator theme I used in the love scene. True Believer was a very good film with some great performances. The test audiences loved it, but I guess it was a hard sell in the marketplace at the time. I really liked the elements it dealt with, especially the young man calling his hero out to be true to his original calling. I’ve been dealing with a similar “getting back to my original purpose” element in the one man musical I’ve been developing the last couple of years.

This was in essence your first dramatic score and that’s what I enjoyed most about it, was it a refreshing feeling to write in this mode as opposed to that of the hard charging “Terminator”?

BF: Actually, I had written many dramatic scores before that. A number of them for high quality TV movies like "Playing for Time" starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander written by Arthur Miller, and "Mayflower" starring Anthony Hopkins, and some for independent features like "Deadly Hero" starring James Earl Jones and Don Murray. It is very refreshing (and important) to change pace when possible. I was thrilled when director Frank Perry called me soon after "The Terminator" opened and asked me to score his comedy "Compromising Positions" starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. He had seen The Terminator out on Long Island while on location and said “you did a great job on that film, I think you’ll do a great job on this." It’s not often that a filmmaker can see past the genre and hire someone on a very different kind of project. Because of that lack of open mindedness, it is often hard to pull off the change of pace project.

For a while, you got to work with the late and underrated composer Shirley Walker on several films such as “Striking Distance”, “The Real McCoy”, “Mistrial”, “Johnny Mnemonic” and “True Lies” Tell us about your experiences learning from a highly regarded composer such as her.

BF: Shirley was an amazing talent and wonderful human being. She really had a deep understanding of the orchestra and I was lucky to have her support on those projects. I had done some of my own orchestrating and conducting earlier in my career. But I knew I didn’t have the conducting chops required to really give my orchestra scores the quality I wanted and frankly, since I had never studied conducting, I felt the musicians deserved a great conductor like Shirley. Also, since I was often combining my prerecorded electronic tracks with the orchestra, it was important for me to hear how that was working from the booth as we recorded since we usually didn’t have tine for extensive playbacks. Shirley understood what I was going for and was such an excellent conductor. As far as orchestrations go, I often heard the whole score in my head, and she was extremely helpful in helping me get the sound I wanted from the orchestra. I learned a lot from her about how to combine instruments to get certain sounds. I was very lucky and grateful (and proud) that I was one of the few composers she agreed to do this for. I actually asked to be her student and did have the privilege of studying with her for a short time. She was an amazing mentor to many composers, and a wonderful composer in her own right. She had many struggles getting a fair shake as a woman in the industry and opened a lot of doors for the next generation.

How important is an orchestrator to you?

BF: With the compressed schedules, the orchestrator becomes a very important collaborator with a film composer. Very rarely is there enough time for the composer to have the luxury of doing his/her own orchestrations. Since the orchestrations can very much alter the composer’s intent, and I’m always hearing things in my head that aren’t the status quo, having an orchestrator who is really open and in sync is crucial for me. Of course a great orchestrator can often add touches that are a big contribution that I might not have imagined. That’s always a real treat when anyone involved in a score (orchestrators, musicians, engineers etc.) help take the score beyond my original dream.

If there was one or more scores of your own work that you personally would love to see a release, which one (or ones) would they be and why?

BF: There were some elements of experimentation I did in "Johnny Mnemonic" that I would love to see out there. The soundtrack only contained on of my pieces and if I remember correctly it was only an electronic mock up of what was a full orchestra score. I had this idea to do a session with two brass sections on opposite sides of the studio that echoed phrases in a live stereo, creating a kind of organic panned delay. I felt this would help the composition better survive all the very loud sound effects because if a phrase got cut out by a loud explosion on the left , the repeat of the phrase on the right would get through. This led to some interesting writing. I remember that Shirley thought I had lost my mind, but was game, and did a great job conducting it. In the end she was surprised at how well it worked. I also did a score for a wonderful independent film called "Eden" directed by Howard Goldberg that I’d like to see out there. I orchestrated it myself and it is a very different kind of score than I am usually known for.

It is hard for you do action films as opposed to something more dramatic for example?

BF: For me every score was a matter of immersing myself in the film as completely as possible and trusting the music that came out of me regardless of the genre.

What was the hardest film you’ve had to score?

BF: The hardest films for me to score were the ones where the filmmakers had already fallen in love with their “temp track” and it was very difficult for me to find the creative space I needed do my best work. I’m not going to name names here. Luckily this didn’t happen very often and a couple of the times it did, I ended up being off the project before completion because being an imitator was not my strong suit( or my motivation). That was very difficult at the time, but in a way it works out well because most of the scores of mine that are out there really are very much the music that the film directly inspired in me as opposed to my take on someone else’s music.

What do you think about films today in general in terms of film scoring?

BF: I can’t respond to that in a general way. I’ve heard some great, very inventive music done with great respect for the film, and some really mediocre stuff that sounds like it was applied by the yard. I think this has been somewhat true in all periods, but maybe more now because of the technology that allows looping and cutting and pasting in a way that’s seductive for the composers as well as an incentive for producers to get music delivered on shorter and shorter schedules and lower and lower music budgets.

What is your favorite film that you have scored in your career to date?

BF: It’s hard to answer that as well. I’ve worked on such a wide variety of projects and once I’ve been in the trenches on a film it’s often a challenge to see that project with any objectivity. I’ve been lucky to work on a number of films that in some way were iconic in their area. Can’t really bring it down to one.

Please tell the readers about your latest upcoming projects you have.

BF: I am developing a number of projects for film, live theater and the Internet. My one man musical "Borrowed Time", which I wrote and perform, premiered recently in Santa Barbara. It’s a memoir based piece from the point of view of a kid (me) who came of age in the sixties and was determined to make a difference in the world through his songs. His life journey takes him through a lot of experiences in the various worlds of music and he is haunted by an underlying need to find his way back to his original purpose. I’ll be performing "Borrowed Time" in various venues in the near future as a benefit for organizations that bring creative education to their communities. We’re looking right now for organizations and venues that are a good match. Readers can get in touch and find further information about upcoming projects at http://BradFiedel.net

A very special and heartfelt personal thanks to Brad for navigating through this minefield of thoughtful questions and for your patience in granting me this meaningful interview with you.

Please check out Brad's official website and find out more about his one man memoir, "Borrowed Time" @ BradFiedel.net and the stellar reviews it has garnered.

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