DFW Music News

Q&A: Old School Score Composer Theodore Shapiro Talks Russell Brand, Writing For DSO.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra's new, ambitious project, Masters of Film Music, aims to showcase some of the most talented film scorers in Hollywood, and, as part of its offerings in the series, the DSO has been inviting these composers to come to Dallas and have a collection of their film scores performed in front of a live audience. Interestingly, this is something of a new thing in the symphony orchestra world, as it's atypical for such an entity to honor the works of film composers -- so much so that the DSO has coined their own project as a "ground-breaking" one.

This weekend, in the second presentation in their series, the DSO will welcome film composer Theodore Shapiro, best known for his work on popular comedies.

The performances, which will run Friday through Sunday at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center this weekend, will showcase music from a selection of his films, including scores from 13 Going on 30, Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder. The DSO will also perform two new pieces that Shapiro composed specifically for this event.

Before opening the DSO performance this Friday, Shapiro took some time to talk with me about his work on the upcoming film Arthur, and how he became typecast as a comedy film composer. Read our Q&A with him in full after the jump.

You've composed two numbers exclusively for the Masters of Film Series. How is that different from composing film scores?
Writing for a film, you always have a picture to tell you what to do to some degree. There's a yardstick to help measure your music, and the yardstick is your music helping tell the story. With an original composition, you don't have that, and you're left more with an empty canvas on which to create your own narrative. On the one hand, that's more terrifying. On the other hand, it's exhilarating to see what comes out.

Is this the first time you've had your film scores performed before a live audience?
This is the first time I've had my film music performed in front of a live audience. I've done a fair amount of composing for the concert hall after I left Julliard. Having the film music played, that's going to be something new for me. A lot of the film scores that I've done, they are produced more like records than like live hall performance. All of those musical elements are recorded separately and mixed together. Blending all of those musical elements together can be really challenging, but I also think it'll be exciting to hear live.

You've said that, when you score comedies, you score them more like action or dramatic films.
I'm a big believer in that kind of approach to comedy. I'm not the first person to do that, either. Elmer Bernstein certainly did that brilliantly, and there are others who have paved the way. I love when music is playing, and comedy comes out of the dissonance between the seriousness of the music, and what's happening onscreen.

It's definitely safe to say, though, that most of the films you score are comedies. Is there a reason for that?
It was a fluke. I didn't set out to do that. My musical training certainly was not pointed in the direction of comedies. I had done Heist with David Mamet, and Todd Phillips who was at the time directing Old School, saw that film and liked the score, and met with me to do Old School, and hired me on the basis of that, even though there was absolutely no similarity in the score that I did for Heist and the score for Old School. Todd hired me to do something different than what he had liked, that he had seen of mine, and ironically that is the last time I was ever asked to write a score like Heist. I've been asked over and over to do more comedies. I'm not complaining. I love what I do, and I love working on comedies, but at the same time I crave variety like any artist would.

So you would like to start scoring more action or dramatic films?
Yeah. Again, it's really about working on a variety of things so you don't get stuck in a creative rut. Although I will say that, working on comedies, I get to write action scores and sports scores -- just comedic versions. So, in that way, I do get variety. But it would be nice to have more variety in genres.

How much do you know about a film when you begin to score it?
It really varies from film to film, how much I know. The standard is that I read a script, and have watched a cut of the movie, and, at that point, I'm responding to the picture. I have taken the approach of starting writing early on in the approach, even if it's sketching themes or just writing based on the themes of the music, and not letting the picture guide too much. Sometimes you have ideas that are interesting in theory and just don't work with the picture. It's an interesting exercise.

Do the characters in a film directly influence the film score composition, like Russell Brand in Arthur?
It's amazing how much actors can give to a role, and inflect the character with a particular spin. Russell Brand's performance as Arthur is terrific. I had this notion about the character -- that he treats the world as a toy. That leads him both to behave irresponsibly and also kindly and generously. The sound of a music box is one of his key interests, which was made into a special instrument for me. It comes in part from the writing. Russell Brand's performance is a major influence in how I perceive a certain character and evoke that character.

Is there anything unique about the score for Arthur?
I think the score has a really nice character, and a sound that is all its own. It has a couple of winking references from the original score, which you couldn't avoid referencing because it's a large part of pop culture. The score has a unique feeling and vibe with the music box, the out-of-tune upright piano and the cello. It has a nice chamber music feel, something that I am fond of.

Have you ever scored a film you didn't particularly enjoy?

But you're not going to tell me.
Of course not.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performs the works of Theodore Shapiro this weekend, Friday through Sunday, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chelsea Upton