Film Music: An Interview with Jerry Fielding and Dan Carlin (conducted with Peter Lehman)

From Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 3 (1980).  I hope that Peter Lehman, who wrote the introduction to our interview and whom I haven’t seen in decades, doesn’t mind me posting this piece now.

I retain a very warm memory of Jerry Fielding; we were staying in Athens, Ohio at the same hotel during the Workshop on Sound and Music in the Cinema, which we were both attending, and we had breakfast together once or twice. I recall his conversation as both literate and dynamic, and especially compelling when he spoke about Sam Peckinpah, one of his favorite collaborators. Dan Carlin (1927-2001), whom I got to know less well, is also, alas, no longer alive. -– J.R.


Film Music: An Interview with Jerry Fielding and Dan Carlin

By Peter Lehman and Jonathan Rosenbaum


Jerry Fielding, Dan Carlin and Chris Newman were guests of a Workshop on Sound and Music in the Cinema presented by the Appalachian Regional Media Center in Athens, Ohio, October 5-7, 1979. The well-known Hollywood composer, Jerry Fielding, began studying music in his late teens with Max Atkins. Atkins was the music director and arranger at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Fielding’s hometown.  Fielding moved to Los Angeles where he worked with some of the most famous big band leaders. Then he moved into radio and film. He was blacklisted in 1953, but had an extremely successful Hollywood career in the Sixties and Seventies, scoring such films as The Wild Bunch, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Escape from Alcatraz. Dan Carlin worked as music editor on several films with Jerry Fielding. This gave us the opportunity to discuss many facets of Hollywood film music. We dedicate this Filmmaking section to Jerry Fielding, who died on February 17, 1980.




PL: How did you first become a composer in Hollywood, Mr. Fielding?


JF: That’s a very long story. I came from the Big Band era of the early Forties and Fifties. That was when there was a great deal of music being written, the days of Tin Pan Alley when there were 50,000 versions of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” I wound up on the West coast as everybody did sooner or later. I went there very early to play in a Hollywood play with Alvino Rey, and the band came out to do a movie with RKO. The war broke and I dropped off and went to work at Lockheed. We wrote all day and worked in the aircraft factory all night. It was great training.

Radio was a very big item; there was no television. I began to work my way up through radio. One thing led to another and pretty soon I had my own show. Television began to appear and I started working on that. After that I got an opportunity in the movies.

PL: Were you always working as a composer?

JF: Yes, and also as an instrumentalist but I never made a nickel in my life doing that. I was an instrumental student until I became undone with a nervous collapse at fourteen. I have a terrible red light fever. As an instrumentalist I’m really a nervous wreck.

PL: Within the Hollywood system, at what point is the composer brought into a project and what does the music editor do?

DC: 95% of the products we are dealing with are dramatic films, and the other 5% are musicals where you go in prior to the start of production and lay the thing out. So we are dealing primarily with scoring that 95%. Generally speaking, I would say that first the script is delivered to the composer so that he can read it. Upon completion of the film the editors cut and then fine cut. Then they bring the composer in for a run of the fine cut so that he can see the picture compared with what he had read in the script. He sits there and just enjoys. The next time they call together the composer, the music editor, the director and/or producer (depending upon who has the most power and who is going to be handling that situation as far as the dramatic entity is concerned). We sit in a room and the composer and the director discuss the spots they want to cover musically, which scenes need help or where they absolutely do not want music. There is input on both sides from the producer and the composer. In my position as music editor I can sit back objectively and listen to the arguments between the two. If a producer wants to cover a scene musically and the composer does not want to cover that scene because he feels that it is not necessary, my  sympathies go completely with the composer. What is he going to write if he does not feel that it needs to be covered? If the director feels an emotional ingredient he wanted to capture on film is missing, then he is going to push the composer to try to do what he failed to do. Consequently, there has to be an emotional rapport between the composer and the director before the composer will be able to understand what was missed. They spot it for those areas. Then the music editor will make a set of spotting notes which is confirmed by the composer and by the director.

JR: Spotting notes tell at what point the music starts?

DC: Yes. After the spotting notes have been confirmed, the film is broken down minutely. There was a good example of this in The Outlaw Josey Wales. At the end of the scene after the guy has done himself in, Clint Eastwood closes his eyes and then opens them again. There was a minute device used for both the closing and the opening. It’s the music editor’s responsibility to make sure that these are registered on a form that shows the exact time to a tenth of a second that those things happened, as well as everything else. If a composer wants to catch it he can, because it is very important dramatically.

JR: Is cutting continuity described briefly or in detail?

DC: It has to be brief. The composer sits there and reads the notes and sees a line: “The girl smiles at the boy.” You don’t use any adjectives. You try to be as pragmatic as you possibly can. If it is a scene about a mother or father and you hated yours, you will look at that scene differently than the composer who might have been fond of his mother. So you cannot interject anything personal or interpret it; just the facts. The composer is totally free to put his emotion in that film, but the music editor cannot superimpose any of his neurotic ideas.

PL: How much time is involved in this process?

DC: They should have a black-and-white reversal dupe, a dirty dupe, available immediately after the spotting session. Then we go back and take two or three days to make up the spotting notes. We hope that during this period of time the composer will be working on themes or something, so that he is not sitting on his hands waiting for notes, because the pressure is on us at that point. If you have a scene that is going to take a minute (you are going to cover it from the time they enter the door until they exit the door), this one-minute scene generally takes us an hour. You figure one minute per hour to break that scene down into detail.

JF: If the music editor makes an error, we’re on the shoals. The ship sinks if you base the whole thing on his timing and it turns out that that isn’t really so. You have no idea what can happen at this stage of the game. I spot my pictures now. I don’t sit with a guy and do it. It’s just a waste of everyone’s time. So before I go back to the directors, I usually try it out on Carlin. I will tell him what I have in mind and ask him for feedback. Frequently, he’ll point to something I haven’t seen or ask a question and I will have to defend myself if I can. If I can’t, I will say so. Most people do not really know how to begin laying in music. Most directors don’t — they have no ears; they’re all eyes.

PL: How many weeks do you have before you have to have the film back to the producer? Is there a standard period of time?

DC: Ideally we have six weeks, as we did on the show The Outlaw Josey Wales. But, within the framework of that six weeks, the producer or director may wake up in the middle of the night and say, “That’s what I did not do; that’s how it should have been,” and they will go back and change the film. They will restructure it or they will trim it here or put in a closeup there. This means that the material the composer has worked on, the material that I have given him, is now incorrect. I will have to go ahead and re-do the timing sheets; he will have to rewrite. It is those kinds of things that destroy your time schedule and keep the composer up all night.

JF: Once we have done all this, there is the problem of getting it into the film. The process of dubbing occurs after a score is recorded, and actually it is the most important step. You can save a rotten score with a proper dub, and you can ruin a good score with an improper dub. It’s being done all the time. When we walk off the scoring stage, I am finished; my job is done. I only know of one composer who gets paid to sit around the dubbing stage. So, many composers don’t go because it is a boring, time consuming job, and we usually have other work to do. But if you want to protect what you have done, you go, you watch, you argue and you fight. You have no rights.

If you have an insecure director, he will ask if you’ll be with him on the dubbing. This is nice, but more often than not the director is a man who has been in the dubbing room twice in his life or goes once every three years and thinks that he knows what the dials mean. He is going to say, “I want that louder,” but he is in a room that’s pristine pure. He can’t consider that when you go into the theater with an air-conditioner and people with popcorn bags and coffee, you can’t afford to go to those sound levels. If you want to have loudness, at some point you’re going to get distortion, and the way to get what you think you want is with contrast and not with volume. You don’t force the equipment. On the other hand, there are certain guys who will be self-conscious about upsetting anybody and have a tendency to flatten out all their pictures. These are things that we have to face.

Frequently, I am unable to be at the dubbing. I will go if I can, but I usually have work that takes me elsewhere. At that time it is the music editor’s responsibility to be on that stage to see to it as best he can that our original intent is carried out as well as possible.

DC: After they have dubbed the show, it goes out on preview and then comes back and is re-edited. For example, in the chase scene in The Outlaw Josey Wales, they must have taken a minimum of thirty feet out of that sequence in little bits and pieces. At that point the music has to be cut so that it will still fit. For instance, at the end of the chase when Wales is in town, it cuts to the blood-stained drops in the sink, and it goes into a totally different color. The musical color has to hit on that. You can’t just go ahead and let the chase music run up and then, boom, cut to there. You have to ease into the change by making the best music edit that you can. The film editor has arbitrarily gone ahead and chopped. He just takes it out. He is not a music editor. There is no consideration for the music. He is primarily concerned with the visuals and the flow of the visuals.

JF: Most film editors aren’t even aware of this problem.

PL: Mr. Fielding, do you choose your music editors?

JF: Where I can, I do. Where I can’t, I can’t. These days there is only one studio that is rigid about this and that is Universal. They have their in-house people, but there are certain choices you have within the studio. On Escape from Alcatraz I couldn’t get Carlin, but he told me who I could get.


PL: Since Hollywood is so unionized, let me ask you this question: as a composer, when is conducting and choosing musicians out of your hands?

JF: What’s out of my hands is never really completely out of my hands and it’s never completely in my hands. It depends on the degree of acting out I want to do. If you want to throw a fit you can do that and maybe get what you want. They usually tell you what size orchestra they can afford, how many hours they can afford.

PL: Do they choose the musicians or can you go out and hire who you want?

JF: Certain studios will hire certain musicians by the year. They have a concert master or they’ll have a deal with a first cellist who does everything there that they want him to do. In those cases you have to use that person, but that’s rare. Usually we have our own choices. It’s a question of who’s available. You call in and say who you want, and they get him for you if they can. Also, they tell you what they can afford, but what they are really telling you is what they want to spend. This is not the same thing as what they can afford or what they need.

PL: Do you conduct the musicians?

JF: Always. I would never let anyone interpret what I write. It just would not work for me.

PL: Mr. Carlin, have you ever been involved in union controversies? Do music editors have to protect themselves?

DC: It’s really not that bad. The image is that if you’re on stage and you are a  lumberman, or whatever, and somebody drops a lightbulb and you pick it up, then there is a big union squabble. In our domain we are in what is called “the film  editors local” which is Union 716. So that when we’re on the dubbing stage, we are not going to be able to physically lean over and say, “Raise the music a push,”  because they are in the “sound local.” But everything that these people are dealing with on that stage belongs to “776” jurisdiction, That means if I want to make a picture cut, I can make a picture cut; if I want to change the sound effect, as a music editor, I can.

PL: Can the music editor change something without consulting the composer?

DC: No. As music editors we are responsible totally and completely to the composer.

JR: The problem with the dynamics of Hollywood commercial composing is that it should operate like surgery under anesthesia. In other words it should operate on your unconscious. This implies that whatever is done musically is dissolved into the narrative, the storyline; the audience should not be aware of it as music. It seems as if this would cause a conflict for a person who composes, who cares about music and listens to it consciously as music rather than as something that is used as a means to a dramatic end. I would be interested to know how that issue poses itself for you.

JF: That’s not a sticky question, Jonathan, and it does not pose itself as a problem to me. I have very strong feelings about it, and I am somewhat merciless in my judgment, public utterances and general external ambiances toward people who violate what I consider to be gospel on these lines. What is needed is the establishment of an aesthetic criterion for composing for films. Like any other science, art form or craft there are no absolutes. The dialectic is at work all the time, There are films and there are films. There are realistic films; there are impressionistic films; there are films where reality is everything; there are films like Days of Heaven that exist primarily on emotional planes. Pictures such as the James Bond type, aside from the spectacle, emphasize dialogue. There are certain “meat and potatoes” situations as opposed to “poetry” situations. A guy goes to the bathroom. You are not going to score it. There are certain scenes which require  poetic ambiance, not even amplification. The point is that your primary objective is to score the film. It’s in service to the picture. In my mind, nothing ever justifies violation of that requisite. That is why I often mention the picture about the man on the bicycle in the rain as an example of violating the gospel. They had a hit record and that was the biggest sale item they ever had.


PL: Could you name Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

JF: You can, I can’t. You ought not ever let your ego, your ambition and your wish to show off make the music be the primary aim.


There are some pictures which require hearable music. The Nightcomers is one such picture where the music is heard. I do not buy the theory that if the score is heard it is bad, that unless it is subliminal it doesn’t work. Nonsense. There are scenes where there is nothing but music. If you can’t hear music in a Lina Wertmüller film, you are deaf. In Straw Dogs, also. Yet, if you are worrying about what I am doing musically, I’m failing. I am trying to manipulate your mind and take you in and out of emotional involvement, if I can.


JR: I understand this but, for me, the aesthetic issue is a question of the objective of music in a film. Compare, for example, commercial and avant-garde film, especially where the latter emphasizes sound per se.

JF: There is no difference. I approach films the same way avant-garde filmmakers  do. I really do. I make no concessions for exhibitors or for the fact that it is a theatrical film, nor do I ever attempt to write down to any audience.

PL: You mentioned that composers don’t retain rights to their music. Could you explain that situation?

JF: According to the law, if you are hired as a research chemist or a research  designer, you are hired to develop something. You go into the lab and invent, and you are paid by them as an employee all the time. You may or may not invent anything — that’s the gamble they take — but when you do invent something, you  cannot patent it. The patent belongs to the company that hires you.

There is another kind of “for-hire person”: an interior decorator, a custom tailor, an architect. These are independent contractors. You hire them to be creative for a job. A composer for a film is not an employee. We work at home; we work on our own time; we work with our own equipment; we have no hours. Nobody asks whether we write stuff standing upside-down in the toilet or not. Working conditions, hours are never discussed in the negotiations with us.

The question of retaining rights stems from the days when studios had composers who came in at nine in the morning and finished at five in the afternoon and then quit. If they finished the film at eleven in the morning, they spent the rest of the day working on two reels of someone else’s picture because a composer composes. Those days are gone. However, studios have been very reluctant to make any changes. When you sign for a picture, you sign a clause saying that they are the authors as though you were in the same position as the research chemist at Dow Chemical.

Seventy-seven of us have filed a class action suit on the behalf of all composers. We do not really object that the companies function as publishers for the music, but to the fact that they do not publish. A publisher is a person whose job it is to be a sole selling agent and to get creative about exploiting by-products and to create ways of marketing what’s available. However, since the conglomerate takeover of the majors, these publishing companies have been bought or operated by people from the rock record company business. They are concerned with the rock market only. It’s a huge marvelous market for those who know how to use it. From their point of view it is understandable why they would not want to invest fifteen cents or thirty minutes in something that is going to bring back a fraction of what they are going to get from one Saturday Night Fever album, They don’t want to do that, but they also don’t want to give us the right to publish the music, because there are certain inherent performance rights, monies that they get without acting as publishers. There is a licensing fee that comes from the exhibition of films in theaters all over the world, half of which goes to the film companies and half of which goes to the publishers, without them printing or publishing anything. The simple fact is that the music in the films earns them as much money as we earn, and they don’t function as publishers for that money. So we are the only profession in the world which amortizes itself by exhibition of the film. They make back every dime they pay us plus the cost of the orchestra from the Rights Collection Society in London and everywhere in the world. So we are free to them as far as their budget is concerned.


We are not saying that that skulldugger’s practice must cease because it is a violation of our human civil rights. If s a good business practice. All we are saying is that if they are going to do that, then, for heaven’s sake, publish. We can’t get paid for not writing the score, therefore they shouldn’t get paid for not publishing.

PL: So you’re saying that they have an obligation as well as a right.

JF: The obligation is that they should not prevent us from doing it. You see, if they make a movie and don’t release it, or dump the score or sell it, the music is theirs; they retain the rights on it. We can never touch it again. I have at least two-and-a-half months solid running of music buried in vaults that no one will ever hear. Because of my own standards of music I turn out, it would go without saying that there is value in that inventory to me that is lost. As businessmen you would think that they would understand why I am upset. You can understand their reluctance to part with capital goods. No company wants to give anybody a piece of anything.

PL: Do you have any information on how Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini were able to make a deal for music rights?



JF: When Blake Edwards did Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he became extremely  desirable and powerful. Anybody who gets into that superstar-status for a moment has the ability to take anything. At that stage of the game, they could ask for the moon and get it because they have box office appeal. Henry Mancini was in that position after “Moon River.” His name on the marquee would cause people to buy tickets. There aren’t many composers who could say that they were the reason people say they came into the theater. Under these conditions, Blake Edwards made deals with his producers that the music rights would come to him.

PL: Is that why Mancini was able to build up a concert career, to make a living touring and performing his own music?

JF: Absolutely. And that’s why his music is available — because he publishes.  He prints it: he makes it available. He has done all the things that all the others have not done. He hired people only to work on his catalogues and has created himself an empire. Many of us would like to have the opportunity to do what he has done.


Peter Lehman is coauthor with William Luhr of Blake Edwards to be published June 1981 by the Ohio University Press.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is the author of Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Harper & Row).


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