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James T. Sale


James: "I was living in London, and would walk through Hyde Park imagining I was
General Wellington".

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
May 27th, 2005

Whilst you may not have heard of James T. Sale, genre fans will most certainly have heard his scores for recent genre pics such as 'Deathbed', 'Birth Rite', 'Dr. Moreau's House of Pain' and 'Bleed'. Moving seamlessly as a composer and orchestrator, between low budget horror pics and bigger budget features such as 'Vampires: The Turning' and 'The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting', James always manages to create works of a very high standard. I caught up with him whilst he was orchestrating the new Lindsay Lohan flick Herbie: Fully Loaded. Although that isn't a horror film (or maybe it is, depending on how you look at it) James has also worked on many recent video game soundtracks, so he is definitely one to watch.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST BECOME INTERESTED IN MUSIC?
Well, according to my mother, the womb. She said I used to kick quite a bit to Beethovenís 7th. Music was a very important part of my childhood and beyond. My parents are great music lovers. In fact my father used to collect film scores that werenít available on record by sitting in front of the TV with a Dictaphone. Thatís how I got introduced to film music. The earliest score I remember was Waterloo by Nino Rota. I was living in London, and would walk through Hyde Park imagining I was General Wellington. (Yes, I was a weird little kid.) I would later hum Towering Inferno or Jaws to myself. This was before the Walkman.

WAS IT INITIALLY JUST A HOBBY?
Music began as a part of life for me and became a vocation when I began to play drums when I was 12. Neil Peart from Rush made a big impression on me because he was a rock musician who was highly literate. I thought that was great because my father is a writer. At that time it never occurred to me to be a composer. "You canít do that if youíre a drummer." It took me many years to overcome that stigma of unable-to-be-a-composer-because-youíre-a-drummer thing.

WHEN DID YOU BEGIN TO THINK ABOUT MUSIC AS A CAREER?
I was serious about being a professional drummer from the start. I knew at about 14 that I would be a musician. In high school, I would come home from football practice and play drums for a couple of hours, do my homework and then pass out. As far as being a composer, that began when I was at the University of Delaware studying English. I just wasnít happy. I knew I wasnít doing what would really make me happy. I didnít want to be an English teacher. I was lost and not a very good student in terms of grades. Once I found my way, I was not only happy, but an A and B student. I had found my way.

DID YOU DO ANY FORMAL TRAINING OR ARE YOU SELF-TAUGHT?
I got my first drum lessons at Roosevelt High school in DC in 7th grade and that was it until I went to Berklee. So to a degree I was self-taught which was not a good thing. You learn bad habits when youíre on your own. I had to unlearn many of them at Berklee. As far as composing and conducting I am classically trained.

DID YOU ALWAYS INTEND TO SCORE FILMS AND HOW DID YOU GET INTO IT?
Once I decided I wanted to study music I did intend to score films, it had been such a big part of my childhood. After I graduated in 1992 I was accepted as "auditor" into the Fred Karlin Film Scoring workshop through ASCAP out here in LA. (Auditor being a nice way of saying runner up.) I moved out to LA for the workshop with about $200 and a suitcase full of clothes and the other full of tapes and scores. At the workshop I met some talented guys, particularly Rick Giovanazzo (orchestrator for the Austin Powers films) who I kept up with. I worked many dreadful jobs like working for a casting agency for babies (a sham). In 1994 I eventually quit my last corporate job after having been denied a raise that I had received the week before. I called Rick in desperation to ask him if he knew of any jobs and he did! The Sony music library was looking for a music courier, someone to pick up scores and parts etc. from the various composers and arrangers. It was a $6 an hour job with no benefits but I was meeting people like Jeremy Lubbock who I would have great chats with about Lutoslowski and so on. I eventually worked up to being a librarian (Xeroxing parts and scores and taping them.) I worked with Thomas Newmanís brother Fred who was a really sweet fellow, very kind. That was my start believe it or not!


James: "I love seeing them cringe or
jump or scream!".

YOU HAVE SCORED AND ORCHESTRATED MANY HORROR MOVIES, IS THIS BECAUSE YOU ARE A FAN OF THE GENRE.
Although I donít consider myself a "true" fan of the genre I do like the films and the scores that go with them when they are good. I go to the theater to see horror/thrillers to see whatís being done these days. I love watching the filmís effect on the audience. I love seeing them cringe or jump or scream!

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE HORROR SCORE?
There are MANY but Iíd have to say that Jerry Goldsmithís "Coma" score from 1976 made a big impression on me. I saw that in the theater and it stayed with me. "Jaws" is also one of my all-time favorites, I donít know if it qualifies as a horror film. It certainly horrified me in 1975.

WHICH COMPOSERS DO YOU LIKE IN THE GENRE?
Well, my favorite composer (if one can have such a thing) would be Goldsmith and I really like what he did with films like "The Omen," "Coma" and "Poltergeist" and even "The Mummy" which I think is his last great action score. Iím delighted to see Chris Young doing so well, knowing that he started with the "Hellraiser" series. He writes soft, emotional music very well too. I must say Iím disappointed with a lot of the "horror" scores these days, itís all atmospheres and stings, not a lot of thematic development or even a motif to remember. Much of it is not really very disturbing at all. I hate when I can hear when a composer who hasnít embraced the truly dark side of music.

HOW DO YOU WRITE A SCORE? FOR EXAMPLE DO YOU WAIT TO SEE FOOTAGE AND THEN START WITH A THEME?
Yes, one must always wait for the footage. One gets a tape where you can view a rough, unfinished cut of the film and then you can meet with the director and talk about what your impressions are. This is called "spotting" the film. You and the director decide where music will go and what you want to accomplish for the scene with the music. Itís a crucial part of the process. Then Iím given a due date and off I go with periodic meetings so the director can approve what Iíve done and request changes or "fixes." I really hear the music in my head when I look at the footage. Nothing I can go and write down but the feeling, color, instrumentation and tonality are very clear to me when I watch the film. That is if I can see the film without temporary music in it. (Sometimes the director cuts in music of previous films to give the composer a sense of where he/she wants to go with the music.) It can be a blessing or a curse, usually a curse.

WHAT STYLES AND ARTISTS INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?
Many styles and composers influence me but I think I like dark music generally which makes me a good fit for the horror genre. I heard a lot of Wagner, Shostakovich, and Goldsmith as a kid. (I actually heard a lot of everything; my parents had a huge library.) I like music that is tonally mixed or abstract, another fit for the genre. I like 20th Century music very much. Iím very Germanic in my orientation as opposed to the flowery French style. I like music that is lean and mean and doesnít waste notes.

OF ALL THE SCORES YOU HAVE WRITTEN WHICH WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR FAVORITE?
I like many of them but I think my favorite score of the horror genre is Dr. Moreauís House of Pain. I like the campy, jazzy period aspects in the midst of the aggressive animal orchestra. I had more time for that score than any other I did for Shadow. I also really like the main theme to the vampire film I just did for Shadow called "Decadent Evil." It features a Harpsichord, Contrabassoon and Strings and is very dark indeed. It features moments of solo Violas and Cellos, which gives the vampire-erotica a sickening, disturbing quality.


James: "They certainly allow you to be
dark and abstract".

FOR THE ILL INFORMED, CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COMPOSER AND AN ORCHESTRATOR?
The composer writes the music, all the themes and accompaniments and picks the instruments used. The orchestrator, because of time limits on composers, takes a computer sequence or hand-written sketch, (very rare these days) and does the actual fleshing out of the music for all the instruments of the orchestra, when there is an actual orchestra involved. (The orchestrator has to know how all of the instruments of the orchestra work and how they sound in certain ranges etc.) This is a time-consuming process which most composers do not have time to do. The conductor reads this score and parts are created from it so it must be precise. It all depends on whom youíre working for. With some composers, you are arranging the music to a degree. With others, you are doing exactly what they tell you to do. Iíve seen John Williams and Jerry Goldsmithís sketches and they leave nothing to the creative imagination of an orchestrator.

WOULD YOU AGREE THAT HORROR MOVIES AFFORD COMPOSERS GREATER CREATIVE OPPORTUNITIES, DUE TO THE RANGE OF EMOTIONS FELT IN THE COURSE OF AN AVERAGE HORROR MOVIE?
Well yes, in many ways they do. They certainly allow you to be dark and abstract without disturbing anyone because they EXPECT to be disturbed. You can really experiment with the genre in a way you canít with many other styles of filmmaking. Think of all that wonderful "modern" music for "The Exorcist." 90% of that score was music for the concert hall. Perfect for a film about a 13-year-old girl being possessed but hard on the ears of the blue-haired patrons of the time. The Henze piece at the end of the film is fantastic but was probably met with boos and people walking out of the hall when it was premiered.

IF YOU COULD HAVE WRITTEN A SCORE FOR ANY HORROR MOVIE, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
It would have to be "Alien" or any of the Alien films because of the mix of horror and science fiction, a wonderful combination. You have to handle the needs of the story but also the creature, which means you can not only experiment with musical style, but with instrumentation and go to town!

FINALLY, WHAT WILL YOU BE WORKING ON IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
Well, Iím orchestrating Herbie: Fully Loaded right now but in terms of composing I am in the running for an independent horror film called "Penny Dreadful" for director Richard Brandes who did "Out for Blood." The script is brilliant and is basically about a girl going on retreat with her therapist to overcome a childhood trauma but ends up overcoming it when her worst fears become reality. Theyíre shooting it now in the mountains. Iíve also kept up with Stuart Gordon who did Deathbed. He is a really gentle, kind man. Not someone youíd expect the make something like "Re-Animator" or "Dagon." He is working on a series for Showtime called "Masters of Horror" where a group of directors are making a film for the show including John Landis, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter. I hope I can work with him on that!


"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview James.
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

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