Between East and West – Interview with J. Peter Robinson

The name of composer J. Peter Robinson appears on many film credits, which films were so popular in Hungary at their ages. Componist of Blind Fury and Cocktail worked not only for american films, but he composed music to the US premiere of the earlier Jackie Chan-films. His latest score is The World's Fastest Indian (starring Anthony Hopkins), which film will be previewed in the late summer in Hungary. We asked him about this album, and also his past works.

Who or what influenced you to start composing soundtracks?

I became aware of the importance of music in film as a teenager when I was given tickets to a showing of Ben Hur, and Miklós Rózsa's music completely overwhelmed me. I thought at the time: "This is what I want to do".

Your first movie was Police Story, an action-comedy based in Hong Kong in 1985. It is a rare phenomenon that a composer's career starts with an international production. How did you get involved in this Asian movie?

Actually, my first movie commission was a horror film called The Wraith (the confusion came from the fact that the movie appeared with the date of the original rather than the American premiere in the artist's biography – ed.). I complsed it with a dear fromd of mine, Michael Hoenig. The involvement with the Asian movies didn't come until 1995.

There were other series of this production which were successful even in our country. Was it clear for you and for the staff that you would be asked to write the music of the other episodes and Jackie Chans movies ( e.g. Mr. Nice Guy, Rumble in the Bronx)?

In fact, Rumble in the Bronx was the first of 5 Jackie Chan movies I did for New Line Cinema. A music supervisor friend of mine, Elliot Lurie, had been given the task of "Americanising" the first of a series of Jackie Chan movies as his films hadn't really broken over in the US. I was brought in to replace the score and the film was dubbed into English and re-edited and it opened to resounding aclaim. I did a deal with New Line to do the other four films (Mr Nice Guy; Police Stories 1 & 2; First Strike) and the rest is history. 

In which country did you compose and record the music? Was distance a hindrance factor?

I recorded all the music at my studio here in Los Angeles and seeing as all the other aspects of post production were being done here as well, distance wasn't an issue.

Asian movies' quality are not worse that of American movies. How different are the Eastern movie culture and industry when compared to your country?

There is a tremendous audience for film in China. Apparently 1 in 12 people in China go to the cinema every year. That's an astounding number of attendances. The films there are more showy in their portrayal of violence in a somewhat cartoon-like way than the West, and that violence is book-ended by a more sentimental approach to kindness and love than Western films, but overall the quality is as good, if not better at times, than Western movies.

In the first years of your career you composed music for several horror movies ( e.g. The Gate, The Believers) out of which the Return of the Living Dead Part II. was the very first back in 1988. This music was nominated by the jury of Academy ofScience Fiction Fantasy and Horror Films. How close is this type of frightening to you?

I love doing horror films. I've always loved horror films and writing the music for these type of pictures is very extiting. As I said earlier, the first of these movies was The Wraith co-composed with Michael Hoenig. We did one more film together: The Gate starring a very young Stephen Dorff. The first horror picture and, indeed the first picture I composed alone, was John Schlesinger's earily creepy The Believers which I composed in London in 1986. I knew then that writing for horror films was very close to my heart. It was nice to be nominated for Return of the Living Dead II. I liked that score very much. 

Romantic drama, Cocktail, was finished in the same year, which rose the wider attention of the audience. What's more it was awarded the ASCAP prize. Two different style in the same year and both received positive feedback. How important do you perceive this year in connection of your career? 

It was refreshing to do a romantic film. I'd done a few horror film by this point and was dying to do something different. Roger Donaldson, the director of Cocktail and I had a meeting at Disney regarding the music for the film which already had a score by another composer. One cue in particular was not working and I was brought in to replace that cue. Once Roger had heard where I was going with the replacement, he asked if I could do the rest of the score. All this was happening on a Friday. I was starting another film on the following Monday and told Roger that I was going to be unavailable. "We're print-mastering on Monday, mate!!" Roger said. So from that point on I stayed up writing the score and delivered it on Monday morning at around five in the morning. Needless to say, I slept for a while after that one. 1988 was a good year...sleepless, but good!

A member of our team became a soundtrack fan mainly due to one of your early work, the music of Blind Fury where you brilliantly combined the country with the electronic music trendy at that time. We searched for the official release but we failed. How do you remember about this work? Does an album exist where just only one theme appears from this soundtrack?

There is, unfortunately, no soundtrack album available from Blind Fury but this year I'm going to compile several CDs of scores of mine that will be available on my website, also in production.

Please let us turn back to the world of horror with one question. You composed music for two movies of Wes Craven (Vampire in Brooklyn and New Nightmare), a representative in this genre. Was this collaboration due to your first common work, the Laurel Canyon TV-movie or to your previous horror movies? 

Actually, my relationship with Wes Craven stems from my connection with Phillip Noyce who directed Blind Fury. We were working on a pilot for a TV series called Nightmare Café which was being produced by Wes Craven and his producing partner Marianne Maddalena. Phillip had to bow out early on in the production as ha had been commissioned to direct the blockbuster Patriot Games. Wes took over the directing helm and we did 13 episodes together (only six of them ever premiered – ed.). It seemed natural that when New Nightmare and Vampire in Brooklyn came up, I was chosen as composer. Laurel Canyon on the other hand, was a pilot the Wes and I did that never made it to the light of day. Pity, because I thought it was very good. 

At the third part of the Highlander you became the main composer after Michael Kamen left. Did the producers have any clause or wish in connection how much your music should resemble to Kamen's score? Did you know, did you hear this album of Kamen?

All of the Highlander films have had different composers. Highlander 2 was composed by Stewart Copeland and I did H:3. Referring to the Kamen score was never an issue. 

You worked together with Anthony Marinelli on the music of thriller 15 Minutes. Two years later you appeared as the composer of collateral music while Anne Dudley was the main composer in the crewlist of A Man Apart (starring Vin Diesel). How did you get this job and what was the reason for the collaboration?

Again, this was a situation where certain cues for those films weren't working for the film makers. I was brought in to fix the problems. 

Co-Composers usually remain in the background. What do you think about this type of diversification and about the common works? How inspiring this kind of project is?

I get inspired by all the commissions I get. Whether it be replacing other composer's music or adding extra cues, it still is wonderfully challenging to do and I get tremendous joy from it. 

You freshest work is the music of The World's Fastest Indian which movie receives a lot of positive feedback. Do you keep track the success of the productions you participated in? Do you receive the opinions of the fans?

Thank you. I'm always interested in the success of every film I do. I don't really keep a scrapbook, but I'm always keen to hear what fans say about the film and, of course, the music.

The director of this movie is Roger Donaldson, with whom you first worked together in Coctail but you did not have any common projects between these two movies. What was the reason for this long cut? 

Actually, I did another movie for Roger after Cocktail called Cadillac Man with Robin Williams. That was great fun. I think it's important that Directors explore every opportunity with different artists. A director never has the same actors for every project and so I think that different composers bring a fresh point of view to their part in the process. I was always doing other things when it came time for Roger's and my paths to cross. It was fortunate that he got me early on for The World's Fastest Indian

How much time did you have for the composition and for the recording? How free your hands were when selecting the style and the intonation of a given theme for a given scene?

The World's Fastest Indian was not an easy film to score and it took a little while until Roger and I found the voice that we both agreed fitted the character of the film. Roger sat me down in a studio that had only a grand piano in it and asked me to play along (a-la-silent movie pianist) and a great deal of the score came from those improvisations (as it is common knowledge, most of the silent movies in the beginning of the 20th century were underscored by piano music – ed.). All in all I had about 3 months writing, recording and mixing. 

Filmmakers like to shorten the time available for composers. Have you ever had strict deadline, and if yes what was the reason behind it? How did you feel about it? Did it motivate you or on the contrary it frustrated you?

I think that the 3 day deadline on Cocktail was the shortest time I've had on a major project. Those kind of ludicrous deadline tend to focus me more on the task in hand than if I'd had a long time. I think it's all down to fear! 

You accept works for both TV and movie productions. Which one do you prefer and which one offers more freedom for a composer?

I look upon both equally as films. I don't prefer on over the other. There are so many variables. 

The start of your career is the same period when the electric music and some elements of rock music started to filter into the orchestral soundtracks. How did this phenomenon influence your style? 

Early TV film that I did were the kind of movies that had rock-type scores with orchestral elements. Coming from a working road-musician's point of view, it was the best of both worlds.

What do you think about the quick expansion of these types of music?

There's always good and bad things to come from any successful genre. The electronic/orchestral type of score has allowed new voices in film composing that otherwise would never have been heard. But, as in everything, there are good and bad examples.

What do you do in your free time?

I have a screening room in my house that I screen films that I haven't had a chance of seeing because of commitments. It's great to sit back with a nice glass of wine and watch the huge screen and relax for once. 

Do you have a dream? Do you have any not yet reached aim in your life (both as a composer and as a man) which drives you?

I would like to do some theatre projects. Film music does, indeed, occupy so much of my life so it would be nice to do other things. I'm writing some concert music at the moment which I'm hoping to have played next year. I'm never satisfied that I've reached my goals. There's plenty for me to do. Music is in my life 24 hours a day. It's what drives me and makes me realize that I have the best job in the world. 

To know more about J. Peter Robinson's work, please visit the composer's official website.


Külön köszönet Tom Kiddnek a közreműködésért.
2006. április 02.

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