On February 21st, 2017, as part of its fifth season program, the Dallas Chamber Symphony will premiére a new score for the classic silent film The Kid, Charlie Chaplin's first full‑length movie. Released in 1921, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in The Kid, playing his iconic figure, The Little Tramp. I had the opportunity to interview the composer of the new score, Craig Safan. An accomplished Hollywood composer, Safan has written scores for film and television, as well as live theater.
Notable works include the instrumental scores for The Last Starfighter, Stand and Deliver, and the music for the television series Cheers. Tickets for the Dallas Chamber Symphony performance of Mr. Safan's score, which will be performed live with a screening of the film, can be purchased at the Dallas Chamber Symphony website, dcsymphony.org.
You can either listen to the audio of the interview, posted above, or read the transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity, and due to the fact that I say "Okay," and "Right," way too much.
The Forgetful Film Critic: Thanks so much for joining me, Mr. Safan.
CRAIG SAFAN: My pleasure.
FFC: I read that your father met your mother in Laredo, Texas, but that you were born in and grew up in Los Angeles. Do you have any other Texas connections, and what led you to write a score for the Dallas Chamber Symphony?
CS: Well, there were no Texas connections that led me to the Dallas Chamber Symphony, but I have deep Texas connections in terms of my family. My dad was stationed in Laredo during the war in the Army Air Force, and my mom lived there. And I was actually just in Waco visiting my aunt last week, as well as in Houston and Austin visiting my cousins. So, I got them all over Texas.
FFC: Oh, that's great.
CS: I was born in Los Angeles, and I've lived here most of my life.
FFC: Okay. So, what is the connection to Dallas Chamber Symphony? Do you know somebody there or ‑‑
CS: No, I have a publicist named Beth Krakower, and she was talking to them. I'm not sure exactly why, but my name came up, and she asked me if I'd be interested in writing for a Charlie Chaplin film, and I said I was definitely interested. Very interested.
CS: Sounded exciting to me.
FFC: Did they have any kind of set parameters, or did they just kind of give you free reign, creatively, to do whatever you wanted to do?
CS: Well, there were set parameters in that the program they're doing is starting with two contemporary American pieces, so the exact instruments that were being used were already set. So, I couldn't suddenly say I wanted, you know, four snare drums or ‑‑ I couldn't ‑‑ I had to stay within what they were already using in the chamber orchestra for financial reasons. You can't just go everywhere. But frankly, constraints, I think, are great.
The first thing ‑‑ when I write a film score, almost the very first thing I do is give myself lots of constraints. I say, okay, I just want to use these instruments or I just want to record it this way. I find that ‑‑ that limiting oneself, you end up doing much more creative work than if you just have this kitchen full of absolutely everything possible. So it works out.
FFC: So, is this your first ‑‑ the first score you've ever written for a silent film, or have you done it before?
CS: I never have done it before, and I've watched silent films my whole life and been interested in it. I also collect old sheet music. It's sort of a hobby of mine, and I actually have some more old music books that the piano players used to use back in the day when the silent films were accompanied by piano, and there were actually published books and you'd turn to a page that would say "Romance" or "Chase" or "Storm" or ‑‑ and it was all, you know, it was pretty generic stuff, and then I guess they would improvise around it. I've never ‑‑ I'd never written a silent film before. It's quite interesting to do it.
FFC: Yeah, that's ‑‑ that reminds me of when I was in film school, I had a professor who said ‑‑ this may be apocryphal ‑‑ but he related a story about a woman who went to college to train to learn how to be, you know, a silent film accompanist, and she graduated in 1929, you know, and that ‑‑ her career was not ‑‑
FFC: ‑‑ yeah, long‑lived after that. So, your career has been extremely varied. You've written music for film, television, live theater, and you've even composed music for the acts of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
CS: I did. I did five of their circuses, and now they will be no more, so I guess I'm going to slip into history with that circus.
FFC: Right. Was writing a new score for an almost century‑old silent film kind of a ‑‑ do you see that as a way to stretch your creative horizons?
CS: Well, it has unique challenges in that normally, when you write a score for a film, you're really just a small part of the sound picture. At least for almost all films. You don't even notice the music a lot of times. When you talk to people and they come out of a film, how did you like the music? Well, they didn't even notice it because it's sort of doing a subliminal job. It's hitting you subconsciously. It's scaring you or changing your heart rate or making you feel romantic or giving some idea of the subtext. Like, a character can be telling someone how much they love them, but the music is telling them, well, they don't really love them that much, maybe.
So, there ‑‑ it's all pretty subtle stuff. Plus you have the whole rest of the sound picture, which is the dialogue, the ‑‑ all the ambient noise of a room, of crowds and trains and cars. It's ‑‑ it's a pretty complex picture, and when you strip it down to a silent film, there is literally nothing but the music. It's quite different.
FFC: That leads me into another question I had, is that if you felt the pressure because the music is there literally every second of the picture.
CS: Well, I didn't really feel pressure. It was more like the challenge is to keep your ear interested and not overload the audience's sort of ear and brains with just this constant flow of intensity. So, I was really conscious of having moments when the music is very energetic or upfront but then like moments where it sort of takes a backseat as much as it can and sort of goes down to one or two instruments and is quiet.
I even have moments where I like have little quotations from melodies from the period or turn of the century, just that the audience will recognize, just to give them a chuckle or to relax their ears a little bit. I think ‑‑ I think the big thing is that 55 minutes of silent film, if you're not used to watching silent films, can almost be tiring if there's not a lot of variety added to the music. So, you know, it's a symphonic length of work, really.
FFC: Yeah, and I ‑‑ I kind of want to talk to you about your process for scoring The Kid. Did you do a lot of research? You say you've watched a lot of silent films and you collect sheet music. Did you do a lot of research on how they scored things, you know, in the early 20th century, or did you just want to bring a ‑‑
FFC: ‑‑ a new approach to it?
CS: No, I didn't really do research. I mean, I sort of know how to do that, but no, what I did is I ‑‑ I made a list ‑‑ first of all, I sort of figured out, well, how many themes do I need. And what are they each doing, and what's sort of the style of music. So, some of the music is a little nostalgic. It feels sort of like '20s jazz or maybe a cakewalk, you know, like ragtime. And then some of it is a little more contemporary, and I tried to mix them up.
But the first thing I did was really write ‑‑ I guess there's ‑‑ there's sort of four main themes, and I wrote those so that those were tacked on my ‑‑ not on my head, but almost, as I wrote it so I'd always refer to those. So, even if I was just quoting a few notes, it would always refer back to those themes.
Then, the next thing I did is I made a list of songs that I thought might be appropriate that existed and that were public domain, meaning they were no longer under copyright, and so I made a big long list of songs, and you know, when I see a part of the film where I go, boy, I think the audience needs to rest here and it's sort of a funny thing, let's throw in "Rock‑a‑bye Baby" or something, you know, just feeding the baby bottle ‑‑ give a few lines of that just to ‑‑ so I have sort of a list to draw from. That was sort of the research I did. Then I just dug in and started writing. I didn't have that much time, so I had to really, you know, there's ‑‑ there's no such thing as writer's block when you're a film composer. Or if it exists, you're not a film composer. Let's put it that way.
FFC: What was the time frame? How long did you have to work on it?
CS: I had, altogether, about a month.
FFC: Okay. Wow. That's quick.
CS: And that was including writing it, and then I had to orchestrate it, and then of course all the music preparation had to be done. So it was a lot of work in a pretty quick period of time.
FFC: In addition to your composition work, you're also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and you sit on the music executive committee. I wanted to talk to you about your role on that committee and kind of what that entails.
CS: Sure. Well, it's just basically the committee that all the musical questions and issues goes through. It's pretty procedural. So, for example, we have rules that a song isn't eligible for an Academy Award unless it was written specifically for the film. So, sometimes we find out that songs, maybe, were written for some other ‑‑ or even scores were written, in part, for some other medium, and then we have to make judgments about their eligibility.
There are some times that a movie may have 10 minutes of original music, and the rest is all music from a classical composer. And we have to make a judgment, well, is that eligible for an Academy Award? We also deal with all the issues of membership, of bringing in new members. It's that kind of body. We mainly deal with bringing in new people and then with problems.
FFC: Okay. So, the Oscars are coming up in a couple weeks.
CS: They are.
FFC: Do you have any opinions you'd like to talk about on the nominees for best score?
CS: Not really. I haven't really made up my mind. I think there's some really, really good work. I always like Tom Newman's work. I also really thought the score to Moonlight was quite unique and beautiful. And then unexpected ‑‑
FFC: There's a haunting and kind of beautiful orchestration and it's just bursts that kind of give an ethereal quality to that movie. I really loved that score.
CS: Right. I was sort of surprised how much I liked that score, and it was not what I would have necessarily expected to be on that particular film. That was a pretty amazing film to begin with, I thought. I have to sort of look and see what the ‑‑ I haven't really ‑‑ I've been so busy with a few other projects, I haven't really focused ‑‑ and the voting starts today, so I better ‑‑
FFC: Oh, yeah.
CS: But those ‑‑ those come to mind as two scores that I thought were really good.
FFC: I was reading your bio. You kind of started your musical education with jazz, and the ‑‑ the presumptivive front runner for best picture is La La Land, a movie with a character obsessed with jazz. Have you seen La La Land?
CS: I have.
FFC: What are your thoughts on how director Damien Chazelle kind of incorporated jazz into his film?
CS: Well, I thought it was great. I thought the music ‑‑ the piano playing was fantastic, and it's an odd mix. I mean, I really liked the movie. But in some way, it's like a lot of things stuck together. But it worked. And I ‑‑ I'm sort of amazed just how successful it is and how that it got made. It's so incredibly difficult to get a musical movie made. It's ‑‑ it's virtually impossible to get anyone to put up the money for that kind of movie. So, it's great. It's very much an homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Do you know that picture?
FFC: I do, yeah.
CS: It looks very similar, the colors, that sort of attitude. The breeziness. And listen, he did a great job.
CS: Jazz is good.
FFC: Yeah, and I wanted ‑‑ since you did kind of start with jazz, you talked about adding ragtime, getting back to The Kid, how did your kind of education in jazz inform what you did for The Kid?
CS: Well, actually, before I did jazz, I did ragtime.
FFC: Oh, okay.
CS: So, when I ‑‑ when I was like 6 years old, I started picking up, like, Irving Berlin and playing it just by ear. And when I started taking piano lessons, I guess I was 6, that's the first thing I wanted to do was to learn how to play ragtime. So I think ragtime even came before jazz. Jazz came more like when I was in middle school. I started getting into the sort of whole L.A. jazz scene and the piano jazz scene, which was pretty cool. And I had a great teacher who really had me improvising from my very first lessons, which is probably why I'm a composer, because it's hard for me to sit still enough to play written notes. I've always ‑‑ you know, if I play Chopin, I think I end up improvising half of it. So, you know, so there was always improvisation and then ‑‑ but ragtime is almost my first love. I still love ragtime.
FFC: I know your mom had a history of music too. She was a musician; is that right?
CS: She was. She grew up in a ‑‑ well, you guys may know, but Laredo was really a town with one paved street and one street light, and it was a very, very small town. And she grew up playing classical music and ended up going to the conservatory in Cleveland. But then ‑‑ but she never really followed it through professionally after that. She got married and had kids, as many women did in those days. Back in the late '40s.
FFC: I found a quote from you about when you got into scoring movies. You said you were hooked immediately on the freedom to put all your talents from the dramatic writing of theater to the melodic and rhythmic world of songs to the esoteric world of contemporary classic music. How ‑‑ can you tell me how your love of your craft has changed over the years, and do you keep finding new things to be excited about?
CS: Well, I'm ‑‑ I'm a very eclectic and broad musician. I've never ‑‑ so, when I was trying to be a pop song writer when I was in my early 20s, my songs really just sounded way too complex and too intense for real pop music. And when you're writing pop music, you're sort of trying to hit a bullseye, you know, and if you're not that kind of composer, it's tough.
So, when I started ‑‑ when I did my first film ‑‑ and I think I was 24 when I did my first film ‑‑ it was like, oh man, I can sort of write anything. I can ‑‑ I can grab a little Stravinsky, throw in a little ragtime. I was a huge rock and roll fan. Had rock and roll bands. I can throw in that. From college days, I got really interested in early synthesizer so I was doing synths way, way back before they even had keyboards. They were just plug‑ins. You could throw that in. You could create a sound environment, basically, and it didn't have to be a hit record.
And it didn't have to be hip, and it didn't have to be exactly what was being played on the radio that month. And so, it was extremely liberating, and when I did my first film, it was like ‑‑ really like the clouds opened up. I knew immediately that, oh, this is what I should be doing. It was really a revelation. But I really knew it, and I just pursued it with a huge amount of energy and passion. Somehow got ‑‑ started getting hired. That's all ‑‑ you know, I'm very lucky.
FFC: Yeah, I ‑‑ I'm kind of obsessed with the synthesizer sound. I don't know if you're familiar, but it's kind of making a resurgence in pop music these days.
CS: Yeah, all the ‑‑ all the old modular synths that I learned on, you know, they're all making them all again, and you can buy them. They cost a fortune. And it's really the stuff that was mostly in universities because they weren't making ‑‑ they weren't really in a huge commercial production at that point, and so if you needed them ‑‑ remember, I was doing the little film for somebody and I had to find a college on the west coast that had the synthesizers and talk them into letting me use their studio. Yeah, so, I know.
All that stuff's making a big comeback and it's interesting, but, you know, synthesizers have gone through just huge changes since the, like, late '60s when they started. But like everything else, you know, like vinyl, things sort of come back and people sort of suddenly dig analog and, you know, they're tired of their iPhone, so they're shooting on 16‑millimeter film. And I know people who are doing that, and it's ‑‑ it's just part of the ‑‑ part of the process, you know?
FFC: Yeah, there's a ‑‑ I don't know if you're familiar. I think two or three years ago, there was a documentary that came out called I Dream of Wires, and it's essentially ‑‑
CS: Yeah, I have it.
FFC: Yeah, I love that documentary.
CS: I've watched it. It's great. And a lot of it's about Donald Buchla and, you know, Moog ‑‑ and I was in all those studios. I worked out of Buchla and, you know, I remember being at Moog's studio in L.A. But Moog was the first one to take the synthesizer sort of away from the world of esoteric contemporary composition and go, hey, I could put a keyboard to this and actually play notes. Because the people who really invented the synthesizers were really from the classical side of music, and they were just trying to say, hey, every sound is musical. You know, it can be water under a bridge. It can be, you know, the wind. It can be me stepping on pebbles. Everything is music.
And so these were really sound machines to create sounds that we haven't heard before. They were never meant to play, you know, riffs and drum beats and grooves and all that. But of course, that's what happened.
FFC: Well, that's a ‑‑ that's a great segue into my next question for you. You recently released your first solo album called Rough Magic, and it's a composition ‑‑ it's a composition based on your impressions of paleolithic cave art, which that's just fascinating to me. I'm really interested to hear it. Can you talk about kind of the impetus for that project and what your kind of process was?
CS: Sure. Well, like I said, I'm very esoteric. I've always loved learning and reading about not only ethnic instruments but early man and early civilization, and back when I was first married, I always wanted to go to the caves. My wife and I went to Europe, and I made sure that I got to go in a few of those caves that had paintings on the walls that were, you know, they're 20,000 to 40,000 years old, so they're like ‑‑ like just thousands and thousands of years before the ancient Egyptians or the Greeks or any of that, so way, way earlier to all that.
And for many years, I thought, wow, I'd love to write a piece of music about those caves. They just kept ‑‑ stayed in my mind. And then at a certain point, I just realized, well, hey, I should either do it or forget about it at this point. So, I decided to do it. And I got on a tour where I was able to go into lots and lots of different caves through southwest France and northern Spain. The food was pretty good, too, in those places, so ‑‑ and I ran into the caves. I learned a lot about the instruments that we think those people used, the music. I recorded quite a few sounds in the caves.
Then I was able to take the ‑‑ this is a little esoteric, but I was able to take the sounds that I recorded, and I have a friend that ‑‑ at Apple who was able to actually reproduce the reverberations of the different caves, and we were able to take those reverberations and put them into our computers so that all of the reverbs used on the whole album are actual reverbs from the caves.
FFC: Oh, that's great.
CS: And then I was able to sort of make my own instruments. So, I would figure out how voices would be used or how water would be used or stones and made those into instruments, and sort of visualized different rituals, reading a lot of ‑‑ of works about speculation about how people in those days, you know, early homo sapiens lived, and I came up with an album's worth of music. Just mostly sound pictures, you know, it's mostly ‑‑ it's not especially melodic. It's more like creating environments.
So, yeah, so it was a really, really fun experience, and now I'm ‑‑ I'm working on a new album, which is based on my impressions of the Odyssey, and that one's going to be a lot more melodic. But again, I've tried to find the islands and where the Odyssey maybe took place, and so I explored a lot of Sicily and recorded a lot down there. And so that ‑‑ that's the new one that we're just finishing up.
FFC: Is that ‑‑ is that the one that's called Sirens?
CS: Yes. Right now, we're calling it Sirens. I guess that's what we're calling it at this point. So, that, I think, will be out in about three or four months.
FFC: Okay. Are you familiar with Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams?
CS: Sure. That's the name of the cave. Chauvet.
FFC: Okay. Same cave.
CS: Yeah. It's amazing, huh? And they only let him in there for, like, a day to do the whole movie.
CS: And he did it ‑‑ and he did it in 3D. Did you see it in 3D?
FFC: I didn't. I didn't get a chance to go to the theater to see it. I had to watch it at home on TV.
CS: That's pretty cool if you ever get a chance to see it in 3D. There was a screening here in L.A. where Herzog was there and talked about it, and we screened the movie and it was all in 3D. It was really interesting. It was beautiful.
FFC: Do you have any other projects coming up that you're excited to talk about? Or what's going on in the future for you?
CS: Well, my main project right now is Sirens. That's really where I've been putting all my energy, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do after that. But that is going to be going on for about the next three months, I figure, until I'm really done with that.
And there's a ‑‑ so I've ‑‑ I'm not doing as many films as I used to, which is fine. I'm really concentrating on these albums of my own music, so that ‑‑ so that sort of ‑‑ Sirens is really going to be the next big project I come out with.
FFC: Well, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I'm really looking forward to hearing your score for The Kid next week.
CS: Are you going to be there?
FFC: I will be there, yes, sir.
CS: Fantastic. Great. Well, I look forward to meeting you in person.
FFC: All right. Well, thanks again, and take care.
CS: Okay. My pleasure.
Huge thanks to my friend Brynna Kelley for transcribing this interview for me. It pays to know a real live court reporter/television closed captioning professional!