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Celebrating The 30th Anniversary Of "The Last Starfighter" With Craig Safan

Cool Profile of Craig Safan, the Composer Of The Unforgettable Sci-Fi Epic, "The Last Starfighter" from Universal Pictures which is celebrating its' 30th Anniversary this year.
Cool Profile of Craig Safan, the Composer Of The Unforgettable Sci-Fi Epic, "The Last Starfighter" from Universal Pictures which is celebrating its' 30th Anniversary this year.
Courtesy of Getty Images

There are many films that most have grown up with over the last thirty years which people have called their personal favorite or just get plain excited for after just hearing the title alone. Films such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Last Ark, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back To The Future, Forrest Gump, Die Hard and many others that have transcended the conciousness of American culture in films.

The Last Starfighter is another such film that definitely falls in this category and for many reasons. First, it was the first true follow up to Star Wars that was just a surprise hit as the original Star Wars film was. Second, it's a film that has the themes of dreams that we all hope come true one day. Do do something meaningful with our lives whether if you write great music to being a world class athlete. Thirdly, everyone loves to root for the underdog and in the case of Lance Guest (who plays Alex Rogan, our hero in the film) we're rooting for him long and hard to save the universe and get back to his true love.

Going in this journey with Alex and Writer/Director Nick Castle is composer Craig Safan, who previously worked with Castle on his wonderful thriller, Tag: The Assassination Game prior to this film as well as providing music for Corvette Summer starring Mark Hamill in his first post Star Wars role and additional music to Michael Mann's brilliant and gritty thriller, "Thief" perfectly matching the mood that Tangerine Dream had already set for the film musically.

In this very special interview which I'm thrilled to be apart of, Craig candidly shares his personal thoughts on The Last Starfighter thirty years later, the music, working with Nick Castle and his other favorite films such as Remo Williams, Son Of The Morning Star, Stand And Deliver and Mr. Wrong. I'm very excited about meeting one of my musical heroes to one my all time favorite films, so please sit back and enjoy our conversation. I'm honored to have done it.

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

CS: I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. My mom, who played, helped me. At around 7 she said I needed a real teacher and one who taught improvisation. So I started improvising at 7! This was the beginning of composing.

This year of course, especially for die hard fans is the 30th Anniversary of “The Last Starfighter” directed by Nick Castle and one of your most memorable achievement for soundtrack aficionados. Let’s look back a bit, how did you get involved with the film?

CS: I had scored "TAG: The Assassination Game" for Nick and this was his next film. Simple as that!

Your score is still an amazing work that is just wonderful and unforgettable and for a die hard fan of the film myself. Can you tell us about the approach you took in writing the score for the film after you first saw it?

CS: I really had no choice but to do a big romantic score. That's what everyone wanted (because of "Star Wars") and if I had come up with something different I would have been fired. The trick was to make it my own and not just a John Williams or Holst sound-alike.

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?

CS: I think I had been thinking about it for awhile and was driving in my car when it came to me. I immediately wrote it down on a piece of scrap paper while stopped at a traffic light.

Was there at one point with this score, that you personally said to yourself. Let’s go bigger and bigger or was that the plan from the beginning to have an operatic score?

CS: Like I said above, I wanted this to be a bit different than "Star Wars", so I opted for a Mahler-sized orchestra with quadruple woodwinds and 6 horns and trumpets. Mammoth sized!

Let’s talk about the recording sessions for the film. What do you remember most about them?

CS: How much fun it was to be on the old MGM scoring stage where "Gone With The Wind" and "Wizard of Oz" were recorded. It's a great room (now Sony) and the orchestra sounded amazing. A true "best moment".

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

CS: I think it was around 70 minutes. You'd have to ask Doug Fake at Intrada Records who is re-mastering the entire score for a Fall release.

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

CS: It's still very fresh and optimistic. I think that's really Nick Castle's life view. The optimism comes through in the music.

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

CS: This Fall... but I would guess no songs! But more of the score than ever before.

What was it like working with Director Nick Castle at that point?

CS: Nick and I have always had a very easy and creative relationship. I feel totally safe with him and he doesn't over-manage things.

Let’s go back to the very first film that you worked with Nick on which sadly isn’t on DVD at this point, Tag: The Assassination Game, which actually was the first film I personally saw that featured your excellent music and still is an amazing score and film. How did you get involved with that film.

CS: The producer's father was a director for National Geographic films and had a relationship with Elmer Bernstein. Elmer didn't want to do it or was busy and he somehow convinced them to hire me. We both had the same agents and he was mentoring me a bit.

A limited edition soundtrack of your terrific score finally was released a few years ago by Buy Soundtrax. How did you feel when it was finally released?

CS: Very happy. I love the main title!

You also worked with Nick on both “Major Payne” and “Mr. Wrong” which featured some really fun comedy scores, in particular “Major Payne”. What was it like working on those films?

CS: They were each different. "Major Payne" was fun and we really tried to make the music help each joke. I think the film was underrated at the time but lives on. "Mr. Wrong" was extremely difficult because there were so many difficult issues: a black comedy (the hardest form there is); Ellen's coming out, Disney's total lack of trust in the film, etc etc. I love the score, but a very trying experience on a political level.

Of all the films that Nick directed, which is your personal favorite that you wrote the music for?

CS: Starfighter.

Which of Nick’s films that he directed, would you have loved the opportunity to write the music for but didn’t get the chance?

CS: "The Boy Who Could Fly" and "Dennis the Menace". Nick wanted me for both films but there is often a battle between the producer and director and Nick lost on those two.

Let’s talk about a very inspirational film that really deserves more attention now than it truly does and that’s “Stand And Deliver” which is a absolutely wonderful film. From the start, was it your idea for the score for the film be completely electronic or was it budgetary?

CS: The film isn't completely electronic. There is real guitar and Peruvian flutes. Yes, it was low budget but I combined the synths with some real instruments. Also, many of the synth sounds are actual samples of real and invented instruments that I recorded myself to use on the film.

The score features a very cool and memorable theme. Did it come to you after watching the film?

No... I had written an entirely different main title with another theme and the producer and director (Tom Musca & Ramon Menendez) told me I could do better. They were right!

After you were hired, did Director Ramon Menendez give you the freedom to write the score the way you ultimately did or did he have an idea of what he wanted and just said, “I want this and not that”?

CS: They hired me because they had heard the music I wrote for a TV movie called "Courage". It was about cocaine smuggling in NYC but I used all South American flutes and percussion and they loved it. They liked the same approach for their film.

You also worked with him on the terrific and underrated film, “Money For Nothing” starring John Cusack. Writing a totally different score for this film unlike “Stand and Deliver”. Was it easier to write the score that you did for this film unlike the all electronic world that your previous collaboration was like?

CS: "Money For Nothing" was also a mixture of electronic and live. Since it took place in Philadelphia, I used a street-corner quartet to sing much of the score. To this I added live saxophones and electric guitar. The percussion and some of the pads were synth. I try to create on original sound for each film and I still enjoy listening to this score.

Let’s talk Remo Williams. A fun action score by you that was not only unique, but great stand out score in your career along side “The Last Starfighter." In looking back, what appealed to you about the film that made you say “I want to do this”?

CS: Usually I "wanted" to do a film because they hired me and I could therefore pay my rent. However, "Remo" was a lot of fun and easily the most complicated score I ever wrote.

Your score is big, bold and a pure masterpiece of both action and fun. Was that the intention from the onset with your music or did you and Director Guy Hamilton come up with the idea of a full blown orchestrial score?

CS: It was a big action film with gigantic set-pieces (like the Statue of Liberty) so it needed the big orchestra. What I did was combine the full symphony with 24 tracks of electronics and then a 8-piece Korean orchestra. Complex!

Let’s talk about the main theme, which is also one of your memorable pieces. How did you come up with it?

CS: I think I just was playing fun stuff on the piano and landed on the theme. The slow theme is based on a Korean folk tune.

From what I’ve read about the score, the most difficult thing was integrating the Chinese soloists on the score alongside the orchestra and synthesizers required for the score. Talk about the difficulties on recording your terrific score.

CS: It was quite difficult integrating orchestra, synths, and ethnic players. Synth drums and sounds are so huge they can easily overwhelm a 90-piece orchestra and make it sound like a toy music box. The Korean instruments are very difficult to play to a standard tuning... that was before "auto-tune" existed. Now it would be much easier. Probably the most difficult thing was mixing what ended up as 48 tracks together. I would credit Dennis Sands for that amazing mix.

The soundtrack to Remo Williams has been issued about three times now. Would you love to see it released again?

CS: It's being released this Fall by Intrada. They've gotten the original 48-track masters and we're going to remix and master the score. Should be fun.

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?

CS: Most of my major scores have been released and more are on the way. Vinyl of "Warning Sign" and also "Timestalkers"... both pretty obscure scores. However "Mr. Wrong" has never been commercially released and I think it's underrated.

Was there an experience as a composer that felt kind of heartbroken that your music wasn’t used or completely dialed out of the film?

CS: Sure... "Wolfen". But Intrada released a CD of my unused score a few years back. I was very happy that it was finally out there.

How do you feel when you’re standing in front of the podium in front the orchestra about to do your downbeat just as you’re about to record your music?

CS: Excited and anxious.

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

CS: I think "Mr. Wrong" just because of all the negative noise going on around it. Musically it was fun and I was very happy with my score.

During your career, which composer do you feel influenced your work the most?

CS: Hard to say...Beatles. Stravinsky. Bartok. Copland. Leonard Bernstein. Max Steiner. Penderecki.

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

CS: Not sure. I think the mini-series "Son of the Morning Star" may be my favorite at the moment.

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

CS: I've just finished visiting many of the caves and Paleolithic sites in France and Spain and am writing a full CD of music inspired by prehistoric cave art. This will be released next year on Perseverance Records. I'll also be conducting a new suite from "The Last Starfighter" and new Overtures from "Remo Williams" and "Son of the Morning Star" at the International Film Music Festival in Cordoba, Spain this July.

I'd like to extend very special and heartfelt thanks to Craig for being gracious with his time and energy to do this interview with me. As a fan of your music, I'm very honored. Thank you again!

"The Last Starfighter" is available on Blu-Ray And DVD from Universal Home Entertainment and available to order from Amazon.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Last-Starfighter-Blu-Ray-Digital-Ultraviolet/dp/B00G9W7NS0/ref=sr_1_3?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1403569122&sr=1-3&keywords=last+starfighter+blu

Both his albums for his lively music for "Circus" and the great seminal soundtrack to Michael Mann's "Thief" which showcases Craig's excellent work on the film alongside Tangerine Dream's, are currently available on Perseverance Records @ http://www.perseverancerecords.com/releases.html

Please feel free to visit Craig's official website @ http://www.craigsafan.com/index.html to hear his great work and for updates on future projects and soundtrack releases.

Here is Craig's Mini-Bio

"Craig Safan has composed music for numerous feature films, television shows, theatrical musicals, and circuses. He is the winner of eight ASCAP Top Show Awards as well as an Emmy nominee. Craig is also a recepient of a Watson Foundation Fellowship and is a member of the Executive Music Committee at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences."