David Lawrence is a film and television composer, songwriter and producer whose score and song credits include the American Pie films, the High School Musical series, and the forthcoming HBO documentary, Becoming Mike Nichols. The Sun spoke with Lawrence in anticipation of his visit this Friday about movie music, the process of scoring and Frank Sinatra.
The Sun: There are so many people who write music to be a pop hit or for the radio. Was it your goal to write television theme music or soundtrack music?
David Lawrence: I went to conservatory in New York. My plan was to graduate and become a film and TV composer. When I graduated and moved back out to LA, my first opportunities were writing songs. I met up with a lyricist and we started writing a lot of songs together for R&B pop acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, Stephanie Mills and riff and jazz artist Diane Schurr. A little while later I got the opportunity to score an after-school TV special for ABC. The director asked if I would do the music for his new Disney summer camp movie, and another friend asked if I would do a horror bug movie, and then a romantic sex comedy. I was doing TV and film scores and got away from songwriting for a while before the High School Musical phenomenon. My lyricist partner, Faye Greenberg, became my wife a few years later.
Sun: How much do you know about a show or a movie before you get to writing?
D.L.: Once you get the job, you have a “tone meeting” with the director and producers where you just discuss the tone of the movie. You have that conversation and you start ruminating on ideas and they send you a rough cut of the film to look at. You look at the movie and incorporate ideas based on the tone and what your gut response is to the film. Then you arrange a music spotting session, where you go through the entire film. The director decides where the music starts and what it should feel like and where it begins and ends in a scene. You spot where the music is supposed to go. The composer brings their music editor who takes copious notes and timings. This continuous time frame (“time code”) is broken down into thirtieths of a second. They take notes on where the music will start, with subdivisions of frames. You go through the entire movie this way. Then the music editor sends the notes, you look at the movie and you think about how you want to develop the score. You start sending tempo cues, and you send the director a file of demonstrations. They place the file up against the movie and listen to the music with picture and critique it for what they want and decide what works and what doesn’t. Once you get it right, then you go record it.
Sun: What motion picture that you did not score would you have loved to score?
D.L.: I would love to have scored The Natural, Field of Dreams, The Godfather and Cinema Paradiso.
Sun: What movie scores influence you the most?
D.L.: There is a difference between what scores and composers influence me the most. The composers that influenced me the most were John Williams, Henry Mancini (he wrote the Pink Panther theme — he was awesome), Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herman (he wrote all the Hitchcock scores) and Dave Grusin. They completely influenced the way I compose for film.
Sun: How does your work compare to how people scored movies 50 years ago? For example, the way Maurice Jarre scored Lawrence of Arabia is a much different genre and kind of soundtrack than what you’ve done. How is what you do now different?
D.L.: Soundtracks long ago were much more lush and theme oriented. The melody was sort of carried you through the entire film and you would hear it over and over again. Film scoring today is much more about creating a vibe and creating an ambient/tonal picture. Every now and then you’ll hear a melody that you’ll hear repeated in the movie but in the old days you kept repeating these themes. Now film scores are more about sound design.
Sun: One of the anomalies in the business is Stewart Copeland, from The Police, who eventually wrote TV soundtracks in 80s and 90s. Is your goal to become a pop songwriter, or do you plan on sticking with film?
D.L.: My goal is to do both. I really love songwriting and also writing TV and film scores. I’ve been commissioned to write two ballets which was an amazing journey. It’s kind of been a little bit of everything.
Sun: So your parents are Eydie Gormé and Steve Lawrence, who are traditional pop singers. How did that influence you?
D.L.: My parents sang all of the famous songs at the time. They also introduced songs that became famous because of them. As a result, I was surrounded by my two musical parents and the composers and arrangers of those songs. I loved the style of music my parents did and what was being written. It became part of my creative fabric.
Sun: Also, I have to ask if you have a Frank Sinatra story, as they were friends with him?
D.L.: There are so many stories — my parents were traveling for a year with Sinatra and they were on tour together singing. They were playing in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. My wife and I were planning on driving out from New York to see them. The traffic over the George Washington Bridge took like an hour and a half — it took forever. After the concert we went backstage and we were with my parents and Mr. and Mrs. Sinatra. Frank told us to follow him back into the city. A police motorcade guided all of Sinatra’s entourage. It took us 16 minutes to get back home since the police motorcade stopped the traffic from New Jersey to the Waldorf. When you travel with Frank Sinatra, everything stops!
Sun: When you were working on High School Musical, did you ever think it was going to have the cultural impact it did?
D.L.: Nobody did. In fact, they were terrified they made a big mistake. They only wanted to air it for two weeks and pull it because they thought it was a waste of money. Overnight, it went from we were so scared of doing this to that we created this monster. It was an amazing shock.
Sun: How do you feel about the soundtrack looking back?
D.L.: I’m incredibly proud of doing the score for all three movies. We are so invested in the High School Musical success story. We are waiting to see if we are getting involved with the reboot which will start with High School Musical 4, this summer.
Sun: What is your favorite movie you’ve ever worked on and why?
D.L.: One of them was American Pie 2. I got a chance to write all kinds of score, big band swing music to very romantic sweet music to indie rock music; it was a really fun project. I conducted over 100 musicians on my score and I loved conducting such a large orchestra. The other is a Mexican film. The English title is X-mas Inc. (Navidad SA). It was a very dark score but a fantasy about Santa Claus losing his power to an elf. I worked with another large orchestra and a very creative and forward-thinking director. It was a very fantasy oriented score. I got to borrow music from John Williams and Tchaikovsky for a really full and rich soundtrack. With a European film, I had a much longer leash.
Lawrence will be speaking Friday at 3 p.m. in the Film Forum at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.