In music's web – Interview with Deborah Lurie

In the short line of female composers there's Deborah Lurie who scored movies in the recent years like the comedy Imaginary Heroes, the drama An Unfinished Life or the musical Dreamgirls. But not only solo projects she's been known to. She worked as choir arranger alongside John Ottman in X2, while she also collaborated with Danny Elfman and Christopher Young and wrote additional music for Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3. And on the top of these she works as orchestrator and musical supervisor as well. Now we had a chance to catch up with her and ask about her career and her body of work.

Please tell me about your early upbringing. How did you get aquainted with music?

I started playing the piano when I was about two years old. I started lessons when I was about six, but I picked it at about two. I played basically anything I heard by ear. My parents discovered that I had a knack for that at a very young age. I also sang in a lot of choirs. Thoroghout my childhood, I was involved in musical theatre, I was in many shows as an actress and singer.

Any specific roles you have fond memories of?

I was in a lot of locally written musicals, which is probably one of the reasons why I got into composition. I played a small part in Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma, Hair! and this great, lesser-known Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing.

How did you start composing your own music with this background?

Everything I learned about music came from my experience in the theatre. I started playing piano in the orchestra pit, accompanying people for the musicals. I essentially started writing original music for non-musicals, when we did a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at my high school. I was asked to compose the score for the live theatre production. I think they wanted to let me try what I practiced in my music theory class at high school. As soon as I was exposed to academic music and music theory, I just ate that up, I loved it.

There are very few female composers out there: Rachel Portman, Lisa Gerrard, Anne Dudley, Debbie Wiseman, or the recently deceaser Shirley Walker. What do you think are the reasons for that?

You know, I've been trying to figure that out for a while. Since I've taken part in the film scoring program at USC, I came back to them and I noticed there were a lot more female stundents than there were when I studied. I think things might be changing. As for why there are so few women doing it right now, I don't really now.

Do you think there's anything a female composer can do that a male can't for some reason?

Gosh, that question will get me into trouble. You know, I think maybe there are some differences, I'm definitely one of those people who think men and women think differently. I think I might be able to offer a different kind of perspective or a different look at a film, but I also like to think I can do anything a man can do.

Did you ever see some negative backlash because you are a woman?

A few times, yes. But at the same time, I feel than men can face the exact same problems. I think there is no rule about who is discriminated against. You know, I've had some weird dynamics in a workplace, but you can expect that in your life.

You've tasted many areas of the musical world, as you've worked as an orchestrator, arrangers, choral arranger... which is the closest to your heart?

You know I really enjoyed and had quite a bit of experience doing string arrangements for a rock album I just had such a ball doing that. It's a much more relaxed atmosphere than film music. We didn't have to record quite as quickly, because you "just" had to make a great hit song as opposed to 50 minutes of orchestral music. At the same time, it was challenging, but I loved it.

Can you tell us a bit more about the duties of a choir arranger?

You know, I've been lucky to be brought in on films such as X2 just to do the choir. Sometimes the main orchestrator of the film would do the choir as well, but I've been studying choral music for quite some time in college, I sort of had a little expertise in that. I also arranged a lot for live theatre. I think the reason why I like to do it is that I've been singing in choirs myself – it's the easiest way to express someone's musical ideas, in a vocal line.

During your career, you've worked with composers like Christopher Young, John Ottman and Danny Elfman. Which was your favourite collaboration?

Oh, that's tough. Chris Young was mostly my teacher at USC, so I haven't had teh chance to collaborate with him that much. He's great - I don't know how he manages to do so much teaching and scoring at the same time. John Ottman gave me some of my first opportunities and I've gotten to do all sorts of things for him. He's such a talent. Danny Elfman... How do I put it? It's been a dream come true. Just to see the way that he works is quite an honour.

When you're collaborating with people, how can you incorporate your own ideas into the final work?

You know, I'm still trying to figure that one out a little bit. On Spider-Man 3, I was working with Elfman's themes, and I was sort of curious myself, whether my work could show through a scene. But that was certainly not my intention, as I have many opportunities when I'm working on my own, scoring my own films. I don't know if my voice is coming through the collaborative projects, so we'll see what people think.

Additional composers work a lot in the background, yet very often they are not even credited in the movie. Do you think composing additional music helps one's career?

The thing about writing additional music for me is that the opportunities I've got were on really big movies, like Dreamgirls. It was a musical that everybody already knows, so it wasn't really about putting my own voice to it, more like connecting one scene to another, filling in the blanks. It allowed me to attach my name to some pretty prestigious projects, whereas I'm still striving to get my name alone to a film that big.

Which was your first individual work where you could proudly say "original music by Deborah Lurie"?

There were a couple of short films... There was one called George Lucas in Love, which was a sort of short cult film that my friends at USC made. That was a sort of tribute to both John Williams and Stephen Warbeck, who did Shakespeare in Love. I also did a feature around that time called Surfacing -– it was a small indie, but also my first film.

Your first score released on CD was Imaginary Heroes. If I know correctly, you got that job through John Ottman.

Yes. The director of Imaginary Heroes is Dan Harris, who had written X2 and collaborated with Bryan Singer and admired John's work. He naturally asked John to score the film. When John couldn't do it, he recommended that I take on the project (click to play the selected cue), that was such a great opportunity. I based the score partly on a theme that John wrote, but definately got it to develop and make it my own thing. Great experience.

When writing scores, where do you find inspirations apart from the pictures?

You know each film is different. I just finished a film that takes place in the Middle East. I've listened to a lot of Middle Eastern music. I'm a kind of a researcher, I'm one of these people who just walk around the block fifteen times, listening to anything related. I don't listen to other film scores, but if something is based on a certain kind of folk music or whatever, I'll try to immerse myself into that. What inspires the main theme... is always different, it just comes right in time.

You've been called into to do a lot of musical "doctoring" in movies with troubled productions, such as the comedy View from the Top. When you're called into do this kind of picture in a short time, how do you work with it?

That was during the great times I had at Miramax when I had a few of those jobs with a really short period of time. I guess growing up in the theatre world meant I thrived on that cram-in for opening night kind of feeling. There's a lot of adrenalin, a lot of crazy hours. But at the same time when you come in to help out a project that has trouble, you get treated like the person who's saving the day. I really like that role.

View from the Top was done by the amazing Teddy Shapiro. He's like one of the biggest comedy composers there is. And from what I understand he wrote a great score, a lot of which is still in the film. But with that picture, the contents got drastically changed. They changed it over a long period of time, they did crazy reshoots. By the time they had their final film, he was probably doing something else. So I don't think it was a bad score, it was music that became less appropriate once they changed the contents of the film.

Another similar re-scoring Job was An Unfinished Life, where you worked on the movie replacing the score by your teacher, Christopher Young. Why did they change composers in that production?

No, I don't know a lot about that... Sometimes in these situations, I'd be better not knowing what's the story behind it. A did here some of the cues from the previous score and it was beautiful. I only had three weeks to do it but they gave me a fair amount of freedom. I just tried to keep it clear head and as Lasse Hallström said, "Just write from your heart".

I hope you had no problem from that with Chris Young...

Chris was the king. You know I also thought it was a musical coming of age, you know, it can happen to every composer.

Now both your and Chris' music are released on CD, so anyone can compare. Speaking of soundtracks, when your music is released on CD, how much do you take part in the process of assembling tracks, selecting cues, etc.?

With An Unfinished Life, that was the second time I had a score released on CD. The first time was Imaginary Heroes, which I had less control over, but actually John Ottman helped with that. On An Unfinished Life, I sort of helped with the structure of the CD, there are a few cues on the album that were not in the film. Sometimes they repeated other ones instead of using the new cues. I don't know if it sold any copies, but I was thrilled to have it.

Lately you have done Dreamgirls, which was based on a hit musical. What did you actually do in this movie?

The first thing I did a year prior to the scoring process was a couple of string arrangements on some songs – one was "I'm Chainging". So that was first a string arranging job, than about a year later, when they needed a very small amount of underscore, I was able to come in and work with Bill Condon a little bit, writing some of that music..

Your new big assignment was writing additional music for Spider-Man 3. Now writing for Spidey is never an easy task as there have been many arguments and problematic post-productions. What did you feel from all that when working on the picture?

Again, I may sound like someone whom people hide in a cardboard box so as I wouldn't know anything, but I think part of the tactic in getting me write the music fast enough, keeping my eyes on the prize. I think it was to keep me out from some of the drama. What I saw, Sam Raimi was a gracious guy and Lia Vollock, head of Sony Music Department was very appreciative as well. You know, when a few us composers run into each other in the studios, doing similar stuff, but we're all friends. I was blissfully ignorant, let's just say that.

When spotting the movie, how did you get to know which scenes you would score?

There were lots of different discussions on what areas of the film I would take a crack at. I felt like they brought me in as much for experimentation as anything. They just wanted to make sure that they tried out a lot of different things. They eventually settled on me bringing in Danny Elfman's love theme.

When so many people are working on the movie, what will happen with the score album if it eventually comes out?

You probably know more about that than me.

I know nothing!

I've seen these things on the internet, people saying "Is there an album?" I'm not really sure why there isn't. I guess it would be an album of Chris' music, but I don't know just yet. Time will tell.

From the promotional album we received, another great selection came from the movie Deep Sea 3D, a big IMAX-style documentary. Does that format require any special treatment from a film composer?

I did some things I would never do on a normal film. I knew it will be primarily played in these big IMAX theatres, with I don't know how many speakers surrounding it. I took advantage of that a little bit. Some times I would have sound swirling around in the room, making a full circle. I also used some sub-bass to do some of the more menacing themes, like the shark's theme. I did have fun with that..

When it comes to your music, do you read reviews or receive feedback from fans?

I learn slowly about reading your own reviews... I'm trying not to do that. The comments I read on the internet have so much to do whether the people liked the film or not. I find it that if people had a positive reaction to the film, they'll say nice things about the music and if they didn't like the movie... I just try not to read them.

What is your dream project?

Gosh, there's so much I still wanna do. If I described my absolute dream project, I've always been this dramatic personnel, I'd like to score dramatic and emotional films.I'd love to do things for live action children stuff, like working with Danny Elfman on Charlotte's Web was amazing. Something like that it would be amazing.

Would you ever consider breaking out of the box and do things like action or horror movies?

Oh sure. I've done movies about, not so much horror and action... I've done this dark movie about strippers and all sorts of stuff.

After the dream projects, I'd like to hear a little about your actual projects. You've mentioned a film taking place in the Middle East.

I've just finished a film called The Little Traitor and it stars Alfred Molina, who plays a British soldier in Israel, 1947, based on the book by Amos Oz. My family loved his book and I read some of his book myself. I did this movie took make my family and friends proud.

When not working, how do you spend your freetime?

When I learn that, I'll tell you. I do find it challenging to get the balance right. I work too much. But I go outdoors whenever I can, I just want to be outside. I wanna be hiking and go to all kinds of places.

To know more about Deborah Lurie's work, please visit the composer's official website.


Special thanks to Tom Kidd
June 24th, 2007

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