Monday, September 15, 2014

ROBOTS IN THE FACTORY: THE ALAN HOWARTH INTERVIEW (Part Three)


PART THREE:


Dennis Dread: I want to talk about Halloween 4 for a moment because I think it’s one of your more underrated scores. You did some really interesting things with Carpenter’s basic themes, but people don’t seem to mention it with the same reverence as, say, Halloween III.

Alan Howarth: Well, Halloween III was considered a box office flop and because of that John Carpenter and Debra Hill wanted to stop making them. But [Producer] Mustapha Akkad said, “No, no, no, no! There’s still life in the franchise!” So they made a deal and Debra and John stepped away and they elected to make The Return of Michael Myers. When they gave me a call about doing the score I was actually in the studio working on Big Trouble in Little China and I remember saying, “Hey, John…what do you think?” and John said, “Man, do what you wanna do…go ahead!” So with John’s blessings I went ahead with it. Mustapha asked me to use the iconic themes, but I had my chance to stretch out and really do Alan Howarth’s version of Halloween. I really opened up the stops on the electronic atmospheric stuff. By then we had digital samplers like that opening scene, y’know, I took my time, I didn’t start out with da da da da da da [hums Carpenter’s Halloween theme]. I had this great affected sample on the Emulator 2’s that was infinite cymbals, it was basically the sound of a cymbal looped in sort of the peak of the vibration so it created this sort of [makes a white noise sound]…which I could play on a keyboard and do my own thing. It really worked well. It was my chance to stretch beyond the framework of what was already established in Halloween and step it up several notches. Again, by then we had MIDI stacks and samplers and all the other tools we talked about earlier that were in Big Trouble in Little China. It was the same studio, same gear, so it was just a matter of firing it up! 

Bad movie. Good soundtrack.

You added percussion to the original theme that gave it a sort of militant urgency. 

Yeah, that actually happened unintentionally. The original Halloween score had no percussion in it, it was just synth stuff, but when I did the album for the Halloween soundtrack in 1982 [four years after the film’s release] there was a pulse track which was John’s click track. I brought that track up and that sort of established the idea that there could be a kick drum that made it even more intense. 

It almost has a plodding rock feel to it…but it’s still moody and effective as a horror score. 

My rock influences are King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that, so I kept that kick drum in and added other elements on top. Eventually, by Halloween 6, I was using a full rock kit with rolls and fills and everything. It just kept growing from this rock ‘n’ roll influence that I had from all my old bands and the jazz influence from my work with Weather Report. I integrated all that stuff and became….me


So what can fans expect from your concert in Portland? 

Well, I’m definitely gonna perform a couple of the Halloween III cues, especially the two opening themes. Then I’m gonna do a sort of tour de force of John Carpenter scores and some of my solo scores that came up later. I’ll do Escape from New York, Christine, Big Trouble, Prince of Darkness, They Live, a little bit of The Thing…and certainly touching down on Halloween II, and some of Halloween 4, 5 and 6

Can you do Kill a Whole Family so people can hear the track you contributed to Whispers Through the Black Veil

Yeah, I can do that. And I’ll do a couple from other movies I did, one called Retribution and another called Brutal, which is by a filmmaker named Michael Patrick Stevens who lives up there in Portland. 

Michael is a really nice guy. I’ll make sure he’s invited and we’ll give him a place at the merch table so people can buy his DVD. I actually haven’t seen Brutal yet, but the score is great. That track Police Report scares the hell out of me every time I’m driving! It lulls me into calmness and then those sharp Night of the Electric Insect strings come stabbing through and, even though I know they’re coming, they always get me! You’ve done terrific big budget sounding work for very low budget movies. 

Here’s the thing, when I sit down to do my thing I don’t turn the meter on. I don’t say I’m only gonna do so much because this is how much I’m getting paid. I just do my thing, because it’s me and my name is on it. I’ve done several low budget scores on the cheap. That’s fine by me. I’m there. I’ll do it. 

That’s what makes you Alan Howarth, man. Your relationship to your work is what makes you such a fan favorite. You give your best regardless of the quality of the film, or its staying power or even its budget. You seem to genuinely love art and movies and music, and you seem to really apply yourself at every opportunity. 

I appreciate that, Dennis. From a filmmaker standpoint, no matter how much you’re going to spend on your movie, you get more bang from your buck from the music than any other element of the movie. I’ll just make a generalization, music is usually 5-10% of the money you spend on a film. The other 90% is the actors, the filming, the editing and all the other stuff. But when you finally play the movie, music is somewhere around 40-50% of why it works! John Carpenter once told me, "Music is the director’s velvet glove." Which was his way of saying that music is how you touch your audience without them knowing you’re touching them.

The other guy in the room… 

Yeah, music steers the audience in the direction of what they’re supposed to get from any particular scene, whether it’s love or hate or fear or excitement or whatever. It’s the underpinning. Another Carpenterism is this: when your actors are really acting and it’s working, shut up and let the actors act. In other words, don’t go wall to wall with music just to "pump" the movie up, because eventually the effectiveness of the music goes away if it’s always playing. 

I would attribute the staying power of a film like Assault on Precinct 13 almost entirely to the music. If you think about it, that movie is very slowly paced and without that amazingly simple score I really don’t think it would hold up very well at all. As it is, it almost predates conceptual music videos. 

Yeah, that was his first legitimate movie. Before that was Dark Star, which was a college movie and kind of a spoof and it was never really intended to be anything but cool, even though it turned out that there was a lot of players on that film who went on to be Hollywood filmmakers. Tommy [Lee Wallace] was on that crew too and they eventually got a release on it. You never know which way this stuff is gonna go. So, like I said, I always give 100% to every film I’m on. Why would I give any less? Why would I give any less just because they don’t have the budget? You never know when some new filmmaker finally steps up to take his shot – and he deserves his shot – because it just might be that that person turns out to be somebody who should be making movies. And, y’know, we’re all caught up on doing our day gigs, whether it’s working at the store or the shop or fixing up things or doing houses or whatever. I mean, I remember one time I was with one of my buddies Sergio Mendes – I knew Sergio because of Weather Report – and I was at his house and he pulled out this picture of all these people who had built his studio out back and he says, “Look at this crew that built this studio.” This was probably 1980 or 1981. He goes, “Recognize any of these people? Look at that guy right there…” And I go, ‘Holy shit! Really? He was your carpenter?” 

Who was it? 

It was Han Solo! 

No way! Harrison Ford was doing construction gigs in 1981? 

And that was after Star Wars

 "Somebody in this camp ain't what he appears to be..."

Well, I have to say, after such a long career in the film industry you come across as someone who is genuinely pleased with the way things have turned out. You don’t seem as embittered as John Carpenter, who has essentially turned his back on the whole thing. 

Yeah, well it’s back to that smiley face thing, y’know? Shit happens. It’s either gonna get to you or it’s not. I remember a great quote from Deepak Chopra that says there’s only two states to any situation: there’s the pleasant and the unpleasant. Personally, I’ll choose the pleasant. I mean, stuff happened. John Carpenter made The Thing and it was considered a box office flop. He made Big Trouble and it was considered a box office flop. That burned him, because it shouldn’t have been that way. But this is now the business of film distribution and studio marketing and all this other stuff…and they screwed it up! In his opinion, the people who run these studios have their heads where it don’t shine, y’know? They just don’t know what’s going on. 

It seems like it’s even harder these days to push a project through with any real vision or vitality. 

When you think about it, you’re the guy working at the studio, y’know, you got the gig at Universal and you’re looking at new projects and what’s your primary word? It’s, “No.” You say no to everything! And it’s up to the new filmmaker to convince them why you should convert to, “Yes.” Cause what happens? If that guy says yes and it gets produced and it’s a flop…he loses his job! So there’s a dynamic in the studio system of no and negativity. It takes a director with real chutzpah to navigate those waters and get their film made and then a stroke of luck to get it marketed properly. The Thing is one of the greatest monster films of all time and at the time it was considered junk. They thought it wasn’t worth the effort so they pulled it, but it continues to run and it became a cult favorite. Universal Pictures released E.T. and The Thing at the same time… 

Bad idea. 

It was a train wreck. You’ve got the cutest monster and the meanest monster and all the sudden E.T. is on the cover of Time Magazine and all your attention goes to E.T. and [Steven] Spielberg and he’s the new darling and he gets his new Amblin suite built on the lot just to have Steven come to the studio if he wants to because he made them a billion dollars. 

Meanwhile Rob Bottin put himself in the hospital working so hard on The Thing… 

People were dyin’ on The Thing…and they delivered! It’s one of the best monster movies ever! I remember going to a 70mm screening of The Thing a couple years ago and just sitting there watching the movie in 70mm – the big show, the really big show, even beyond HD at least for now – and the movie looked great! The only thing that said this move was from the early 80s was the technology. They had these clunky cell phones and the computers were clearly from Radio Shack, but other than that, y’know, the acting, the costumes, the helicopter, the exteriors and the monster itself completely stand up. 

Academy Award winning FX master Rob Bottin on the set of The Thing.

Well, we should wrap this up. 

Ok, Dennis. Well, I’m really looking forward to coming back to Portland! It was great to meet you and the kids that were with you. We’re gonna do a great show...and then let’s have some fun afterwards! 

For sure, man. You can count on it.

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