‘The Making of The Empire Strikes Back’ (1979)

Interview from the book “Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back” – Alan Arnold – 1980

Saturday, November 17 (1979)

Alan Arnold: You have a tremendous amount of music to compose for “The Empire Strikes Back” in a matter of weeks.

John Williams: Yes. “Empire” will require 107 minutes of underscore, although some of this will involve quotes from my original score for “Star Wars”. We plan to reprise the Star Wars March, for example. But I will still have about 102 minutes of new music to write between now and mid-January. You could say it’s the equvalent of several Lisztian tone poems.

AA: Or a couple of symphonies.

JW: Yes, except that it’s not really a fair comparison, because this kind of incidental music is quicker to write than an organic piece like a symphony.

AA: Would you describe yourself as a romantic composer?

JW: Film composing is a very special kind of craft and you have to adapt your style constantly. So when you ask I am a romantic, I have to answer that in doing incidental music for films one has to be a chameleon. My nonfilm music – my more serious efforts at compositiong – is far less romantic than my film

AA: Do you sometimes feel that your work for films takes time away from other things you would like to do?

JW: Yes. Film composers can be frustrated fellows. Usually, like me, they not only write for film but do their own composition outside of it. I think that’s important. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to give up my film work because I think it is a wonderful medium for a composer. Millions of people go to the cinema, and it’s stimulating to hear people whistling your tunes. That is a wonderfully supportive thing. I fully recognize, however, that popularization is something that can be damaging to any desire may have to be considered a serious composer.

AA: There are many examples of respected composers such as Johann Strauss whose work has survived and who were popular in their own day.

JW: I agree. The public taste needn’t always be mistrusted. If the public likes something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s inferior.

AA: What new themes are you developing for “The Empire Strikes Back”?

JW: There is a new theme for Yoda, the teacher of the Jedi Knights. His theme begins in a kind of piquant way and develops into a more profound, more noble piece. There will be a new theme that could be called the Love Theme developing from the love interest between Princess Leia and Han. There will be a new piece of music for Darth Vader who plays a more important role in this film. In “Star Wars” he had what you could call a musical fragment, but in the new picture there will be a Grand Imperial March. In addition to those three principal themes there is new thematic material for the ice-planet battle sequences. The Force Theme from “Star Wars” will be more widely used and developed. Finally, the “Star Wars” march, which is associated with Luke and the good side of the Force, will be newly presented.

AA: How do you get your inspiration?

JW: I supposed the unconscious mind works on the time on one’s problems. Sometimes themes come very painfully after hours of holding my head in my hands at the piano. Days can go by and I’ll think it is never going to come. Then I’ll sit down at the piano and it sort of pops into my mind. After two weeks of frustration it just appears out of nowhere. Other times I might think about a theme for a character and get it straight off. It is a strange and mysterious and frustrating process, almost impossible to describe.

AA: With “Star Wars”, “Superman”, and “Close Encounters”, you have had an amazing series of successes. Isn’t there a limit to the amount of film music one can compose in such a relatively short time?

JW: I would like to rest after “Empire”. I have some concerts to conduct, and I find conducting more invigorating and energizing than anything else. But I like to feel that my composing improves all the time. I don’t say that in an egotistical way. I am not a religious man, but I think the source of our inspiration is infinite. So it’s not a question of how much one writes, but of being convinced that there is steady improvement. The longer one lives and experiences, the more there is to draw on creatively.

AA: What would you cite as your influences in composing the scores for the “Star Wars” films?

JW: My influences, like those of all musicians, came from wide range of sources and I acknowledge them freely. In the case of “Star Wars” I made a conscious decision to try to model and shape the score on late nineteenth century, romantic orchestral scores. The idea was that the music should have a familiar emotional ring so that as you looked at all those strange robots and other unearthly creatures, at sights hitherto unseen, the music would be rooted in familiar traditions.

AA: I suppose that in being as prolific as you have been the danger of repeating yourself is always there.

JW: Yes, I suppose so. In a way, one is always a bit haunted by one’s own music. Ocassionaly, while I am working, a phrase may pop into my mind from something I wrote ten or more years ago. Memory traces are a strong part of everything we do. Inevitably, every composer has characteristic themes that recur and personify his work. Film composing is very different from composing for the concert hall; it is bound to be more repetitious. For the “Star Wars” films I have had to write active music which can be orchestrated with a flourish, a lot of decoration, a quick tempo. As these are heroic films, the music necessarily reflects the heroic element. It must underlie the emotional content and have an epic sweep to it. It’s not a crutch but a sustaining element in films of this kind – and it’s very stimulating to compose.