Speaking of young directors, I have seen that you have also worked with your son, Ryan Schifrin. How is working father and son together?
He made a movie called Abominable (2006), a horror movie, a very good movie. He’s very talented and I really liked the movie. What I told him is “I’m not going to work with you as if you were my son, I will work with you like you’re a professional film director and then you’re not my son. We are talking professionally from one to another“. And then, there I had respect for him, but if he already had respect for me before, I think that after this work he has respected me even more.
Let’s go back some time and let’s talk about a curious project, also with a young filmmaker at that time, George Lucas, who was in his early film works with THX 1138 (1971). How was working with him on this project, so different on those days?
It was a curious film, but it was a very good experience, because he was looking for a composer who could perform, and there were very little options, because it is emotionally very difficult to perform. What I did first was to use a chamber orchestra instead of using a symphony orchestra. Few musicians and plenty of space between instruments, because there was too much space in the image also.
Another film that I consider very important in your career, and that I know people who have been greatly influenced by it, is Enter the Dragon (1973). How did you get to that project and what was your experience working in that movie?
Bruce Lee really liked the music of Mission: Impossible. He practiced in Hong Kong, where he lived and had his gym, to the music of Mission Impossible, to the rhythm of the main titles. I did not know that, but he knew who I was. I mean, I knew who he was, and I liked his work, but never met him in person. He wanted me to be the one who scored the music of the film, so he asked for me and thus I entered the project.
When I was at the Conservatory of Paris I studied ethno-musicology, so I was able to compose the kind of music that was required in the film. But I’m not showing off, on the contrary, I consider myself quite humble. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how much is left to learn.
So, having studied ethno-musicology, I knew the music of the East and as I did in Cool Hand Luke merging styles, here I combined oriental music with orchestra and Jazz. I know oriental music’s scales, the sounds they use, and when I don’t find oriental or ethnic instruments here, what I try to do is imitate them with what I have. It’s like a painter who seeks a color mixing other colors. So did I, but musically speaking.
Besides from music, I also put Jazz rhythms, although doesn’t look like, and large orchestral colors and a symphony orchestra. So with all that I could deliver the music of the film.
Warner Brothers, the producer, liked the music very so much that Bruce Lee came to the recording. He liked very much what he heard, and in a conversation we had, he said “What kind of exercises are you doing now?” And I said “Tennis“, and he answered, “No, you have to do martial arts“. And so it was that Bruce Lee came to my house and made me assemble a Dojo at home. Fortunately, I have a very large house.
I was lucky to buy a big house, a mansion, a house that belonged to Groucho Marx, by chance again, because I did not know it was Groucho Marx’s house when I bought it, but that’s another story and I do not want divert much.
Returning to Bruce Lee, he came to my house and gave me the first lessons of martial arts, without charging anything, as a friend. And then, when he returned to Hong Kong to make other films, he put one of his assistants, who was not oriental, was Hungarian, who was very good and continued teaching me.
That’s how I became a black belt. Moving from the lower belts till brown and black belts. Now I can’t practice martial arts, because I have 84 years and I don’t have the same balance, but I’m happy I have lived that experience in my body and in my mind.
Not many people can say that he has been Bruce Lee’s student! Let’s talk now about your extensive film career, which has also come to Spain, where you have worked with directors such as Carlos Saura. What memories do you have from this collaboration?
Yes! Tango! Carlos Saura is a genius of cinema and a genius in general. I send my best greetings and hugs to him from here, just in case he reads me! I worked with him and I loved it. He knows so much …. he knew music, he knew choreography, he knew everything. The only thing is that at the beginning of Tango he said, “I do not know anything about tango. My mother danced the tango, but I know nothing. I do not know how to make this film. I want to do it but do not know how to approach it” So I said “Why don’t you do what Fellini did in Eight and a half? And you start to make the film as someone who knows nothing about tango and then you progress… “. He listened, and he did, and if you see the movie Tango now, and look at it from that point of view, you will realize it’s that way.
And, to close this interview …. you have a very long career, in all areas and genres, with lots of music that will be there for remembrance, but, is there anything you have not done yet that you would like to do? Have a rest perhaps?
Noooo! Resting is boring (laughs). On August 2nd, at the Hollywood Bowl, there was a world premiere, a concert for guitar and orchestra that I had written for that particular moment, the Friendship Concert, with great Spanish guitarist Angel Romero as soloist and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Earlier I could conduct, but now I can’t, anyway there I was, backstage, and when it finished, I did go out and it was amazing, there were 15,000 people applauding in there. Something very special!
This week, here in my house, in my studio, a recording sponsored by Yamaha pianos is going to be held with an Argentinian soloist called Miriam Conti. I wrote a sonata for solo piano for her, a suite, a theme with variations, one hour long, which will be recorded in two days.
And I have more things going on. Now I am writing a concerto for tuba and orchestra, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with a tuba soloist. This is very rare, because there’s never been done a concerto for tuba and orchestra.
And after that, I have to compose a string quartet. And then, there is this young Argentinian director who wants my music in his movie, do you remember?, the one I mentioned earlier, who is going to send me the script in December, because now I have a lot of work.
So I’m not retired! I want to be busy, but of course, in things that are worthwhile!
I think it is a great philosophy! It has been a real pleasure talking to you, and has been very instructive to know all the details you have told me about your life and work through this complete interview.
I would like to thank you again for your time and kindness, and I wish you continue composing fabulous music, for a long long time!
Thank you for your interest!
Lalo Schifrin, because a “Maestro” is not only the one who knows more than the rest, but the one that explains and transmits in the best way, as he did throughout the interview, with patience, dedication and affection.
Beth Krakower (The Krakower Group), for making possible a far-fetched idea that was echoing in my head.
Óscar Salazar, for his help with the research and development of the questions of this interview.
Interviewer: Gorka Oteiza