Gavin Schmitt Interviews Composer Simon Boswell
Distinguished British composer Simon Boswell somehow managed to find time in his schedule to chat about life in the musical world. Boswell is probably best known for his association with Dario Argento and other Italian horror directors. He touches on that aspect of his career.
But also, we learn about the ignored genius of Richard Stanley and British bands of the 1980s. We throw some oddball questions at Boswell (who takes them in stride), and even David Hasselhoff returns yet again… find out what Hasselhoff-fueled show Boswell loves to hate.
GS: Let’s clear the air. I heard you don’t like horror films?
SB: I never used to watch horror films because I was a nervous type. I believed all the publicity about The Exorcist (affiliate link) when it was released – you know, all that nonsense about people fainting in the cinema – and decided it would definitely freak me out. I particularly remember my girlfriend telling me about Suspiria — ironic considering my first ever film work was with Argento — and how scary it was.
Since working on so many horror films I’ve come to respect them a lot. And, of course, when they come to me they’re not frightening at all because there’s no music! I’ve also been very fortunate to cut my teeth on the horror genre because music is more important in this than any other genre of movie. You can really fuck with people’s expectations – lead them up blind alleys, lull them into false security — far more so than most other movies.
GS: You met Dario Argento and were asked to work for him because you attended the same party, presumably by coincidence. But what I wonder is… what sort of parties can one run into Dario Argento?
SB: Dario had seen my band Live Wire play in Rome the year before. So when Vincent Messina, who worked for RCA Music Publishing, introduced us, he was already familiar with me. I’m sure you imagine Dario hangs out at bizarre orgies where they sacrifice virgins. Actually he’s a sweet man with a nasty imagination. It’s me who hangs out at parties like that! Though I do remember having tea at Dario’s apartment in Rome and him being terrified of walking down the corridor because his own cats used to attack him!
GS: You’ve talked in the past about some obsession Argento has with naked dolls. What happened, how did you feel at the time and now that you’ve had years to reflect, what are your thoughts?
SB: It’s just that it was my first day as a film composer. You have to understand that I never planned to be a composer, so it was all a bit of a stress and a sharp learning curve. I’d been hard at it all day creating a collage of unlistenable sounds to a scene where a young Jennifer Connolly is being chased down an underground tunnel and falls into a pit of shit and decomposing bodies. As you do. To me, it was like the aural equivalent of running your fingernails down a blackboard. Dario listened intently to this concoction. He pronounced it ‘beautiful’ — which was a great moment for me. But I noticed he was fiddling with something as he listened. He dropped it on the floor and as I bent down to pick it up for him, I saw it was a small plastic doll. He snatched it away, held it up like a crucifix to a vampire, and backed out of the room saying ‘Good luck! Good luck!’. Honestly, I now think this was perfectly normal behaviour for Dario. I mean, he was probably nervous, too. Handing your movie over to a composer is a huge act of faith and I’m forever grateful to him for believing in me.
GS: Your career has included some films that have been seen all around the world and others that barely made it out of Italy without really poor dubbing. How do you decide which films you’ll accept and which are, to put it plainly, not worth the effort?
SB: That’s a tough one. Same for actors. A script can be amazing, but it’s almost impossible to predict the success, artistic or commercial of a film that’s being made. That’s why so many people in the film industry make decisions based on track record. So I’ll look at the movies and reputation of the director and sometimes producer concerned. Having said that, I often meet first time directors who I really click with and who I’m prepared to go on that unpredictable journey with. And it goes without saying that when you’re starting out you take every piece of nonsense crap going! How else do you get hands on experience? I did something like 20 Italian movies in 3 years! And experience has taught me that one person’s rubbish is
another person’s work of art!
GS: My favorite Italian horror film is Dellamorte Dellamore, directed by Michele Soavi. You worked on Soavi’s Stage Fright (also known as Deliria). What was it like working with Soavi and what can you tell us about the score?
SB: Well I met and liked Michele a lot. He had been around as Dario Argento’s assistant director when I worked on Demons 2 and Phenomena. Michele gave me free rein with the score and it pretty much sounds like the era it was written in — full of 80’s synth pads, swirling drones and a kind of jazzy bass synth lead instrument, honestly influenced by the band Weather Report. The movie remains one of the best Italian horrors of the time and I’m proud of some of my musical moments!
GS: You’ve expressed being influenced by such classic rock musicians as Jimi Hendrix, yet you also try and avoid music today when possible. Are there any current artists that influence or interest you?
SB: I can safely say that there isn’t a contemporary film composer in the world that has any influence on me whatsoever — unless it is to AVOID emulating the dire crap that occasionally crosses my ears. I’m much more influenced by the music I heard BEFORE it became my job — Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Bert Jansch, Stravinsky and Mozart. I find so much current pop music to be one-dimensional recycling. I saw Amy Winehouse in Milan recently and thought — class A allowances aside (hers not mine) — that I’d seen more lively recreations of a bygone era in Las Vegas. Deeply depressing. I’ve always been a closet Damon Albarn fan — except for his ventures into film music! And I was very impressed by the simplicity with which the music in Once was achieved. But then I’ve always been an acoustic guitarist.
GS: You worked on two of my favorite lesser-known films: Dust Devil and Naboer. Devil” even features an interview with you. How did you get involved with Naboer? What sorts of instruments go into orchestrating a psychologically terrifying picture?
SB: Naboer came about because of Shallow Grave. A lot of people have seen that film around the world and I guess they like the score. I always wanted the music for Naboer to be orchestral and thought that Bernard Hermann was a good template. Some of the weirder moments, though, are a 70 piece orchestra slowed down by a factor of 20, and then reversed. Don’t think Bernard would have gone for that, though. As for Dust Devil, well, I’ve scored pretty much everything that Richard Stanley has directed. He’s a good friend and I’m very fond of him. I wish the world would wake up to what a neglected genius he is.
GS: I agree with you completely that Richard Stanley is an under-appreciated genius. How did you get to become such a long-standing collaborator with him?
SB: Richard, being a fan of Argento, assumed that I was an Italian composer. So he initially called Dario’s production office to try and track me down. He was surprised to learn that I lived in London, too. So Hardware was the first British film that I scored. He gave me complete freedom with the music — which is not always the case. I think it really paid off. After that we did a film he had already shot in Afghanistan, living with the Mujehadin fighting the Russians. It was just images and music. Then followed Dust Devil — which features me multitracked fifty times humming the main theme. Over the years we have done many documentaries, too. Richard and I have a lot in common and we still get together and sacrifice some virgins and drink some blood every now and then in London.
GS: Italian horror historian Jim Harper had some critical words for your score to Lamberto Bava’s Dinner with a Vampire (1988): “Simon Boswell recycles the same song that he used in Graveyard Disturbance (1987) The Church (1988), Lord of Illusions (1995) and several other films.” How do you respond to these charges? Is it difficult to keep the music fresh and new with each film when the themes of the movies are so repetitive?
SB: These charges. Ooh. Jim Harper’s not really an off duty policeman is he? Moonlighting as a horror critic and historian? The song he’s referring to is called “Imagination” and is one that I have deliberately tried to get into as many movies as possible. About 8 so far! But it’s just that one song! The scores are all different! What a twat! It’s a bit like criticising the Rolling Stones for a song appearing in more than one film! Get a life, Jim. Or go bust some real criminals.
GS: Some of your films (Hackers, Demons 2, Phenomena, etc.) had soundtracks aside from your composed music — how much control does the composer have over the other music? Is there an urge to blend styles — for example, Hackers features techno music, so would the score be slanted in that way?
SB: 90 percent of the time the composer has very little input into the licensed music. Usually the director has his favourites and the job then devolves to a music supervisor who navigates the route between what works and how much the production can afford. Having said that, there have been a number of movies where I have got involved. The first was Demons 2, directed by Lamberto Bava and produced by Dario Argento. It always felt more like Dario’s baby and I knew from working on my first ever film, Dario’s Phenomena, that he was very into heavy metal music — something I don’t listen to. So I resolved to try and steer the film away from that into the area of British Indie and Goth music which I felt suited the movie well. Working with UK company Beggars Banquet, we got Lamberto and Dario to accept Dead Can Dance, Peter Murphy (from Bauhaus), Fields of the Nephilim, Gene Loves Jezebel , The Cult and others. I also managed to persuade Morrissey, via an extremely bullshitty letter claiming this gory film to be an allegory of consumerism taking over society (the demons come out of A TV set) to let us use “Panic” by The Smiths. We also threw in an Art of Noise track. I appear on that soundtrack as myself, The Producers, Caduta Massi and as the producer of Irish songwriter Pierce Turner.
In Hackers, I had the dual task of keeping some emotional quality to the themes, adding tension and also mixing and matching the different styles of the soundtrack. So, yes, I made some cues in various styles to fit with The Prodigy, Underworld and Leftfield. It is a source of some irritation to me that it took until Volume 3 of the soundtrack to put any of my original music on the CDs. I guess that says it all in terms of how much certain record companies respect film composers. So if EDEL AMERICA is listening, GO FUCK YOURSELVES!
GS: As a composer, you have to be familiar with the sounds, ranges, etc. of hundreds of instruments and effects. Is this ability to understand what you’re looking to create an intuitive gift, or do you have to learn each new instrument as you go?
SB: I think that I had a very natural, intuitive ability at a very young age — an affinity and an understanding of music that was not taught to me. I am undecided whether it is a strength or a weakness, but I have a real aversion to listening to music at all. It makes me angry — either because it’s so GOOD that I get resentful and twisted or because it’s so BAD that I hate it for being moronic and obvious. So I live in a kind of bubble, a musical vacuum that may have helped me be more original — or has denied me useful influences. I can’t decide which.
GS: I’m always looking for dirt on David Hasselhoff. Do you have any Hasselhoff stories? If not, what words of advice can you offer for those looking to enter the music industry, either as a band or as composers?
SB: I have absolutely no gossip on Hasselhoff whatsoever. But I will say this: Having seen more than I should of “America’s Got Talent”, I think the guy represents almost everything I loathe about America — no, make that humanity. There are many violent horror films that I could picture him in getting his just desserts! As for those wanting to enter the music industry, well, don’t bother. Life’s hard enough for us already without a bunch of talented kids around… Go sell some mortgages to someone, do something important.
GS: Let’s say that through a freak accident, you fall out a window, survive, and then immediately get run over by a car filled with albino left-handed midgets. Your obituary appears the next day. What would you want to be known for? Would it frustrate you (or your ghost) if the opening paragraph of an Italian article referred to you as “the guy who made the incidental music for that leech scene in Phenomena“?
SB: I can’t think of a better way to go — though I am afraid of heights, so you won’t get me leaning out of too many windows. Those damn left handed midgets can’t drive on the right hand side of the road too well, but c’est la vie. Or la morte in this case. As for the Italian obituary, well, if it said “his first film music was that leech scene etc.” it would be true. I would hope it might continue: “he went on to compose some very different and original film music, never took the Hollywood shilling and died a happy but significantly less rich man than Hans Zimmer.”
GS: An excellent and honest way to approach life… or death. Simon, thank you for your time and your wit… don’t stop composing and don’t ever turn your back on your horror roots.
Those who want to learn more about Simon Boswell and his notable list of credits is encouraged to check out either Internet Movie Database or Simon’s personal website. Film just wouldn’t be the same without the mood music…