David Shire: a conversation

It would be a dull affair to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho without Bernard Hermann’s iconic score. Would the shower scene even frighten if it were accompanied by, say, drums and piano instead of Hermann’s shriek-shriek-shrieking climax?

Kicking off on Thursday, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival features “The Sound of Movies: Masters of the Film Score,” a sidebar series showcasing celebrated Jewish film music composers.

“What struck me is that so many film composers have been Jewish,” says festival programmer Ellie Skrow. From the songs of Irving Berlin of the early talkie era to the orchestral scores of Jerry Goldsmith, “they have extremely dominated the field.”

The series also features documentaries on Hermann, Lalo Schifrin (the Mission: Impossible theme) and Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, Far From Heaven), plus screenings of the original Planet of the Apes and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The centrepiece is a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), followed by a conversation and performance with composer David Shire.

Speaking on the phone from his home in Piermont, N.Y., Shire says he was enamoured at an early age by the music he heard in the theatres of his hometown of Buffalo. “Movie music was very melodic,” he says. “That was the kind of music I gravitated to.”

Despite his future songwriting ambitions, he wasn’t immediately aware of the legacy of Jewish film composers. “We were Reform Jews, so I wasn’t counting,” he adds with a laugh. But of those who inspired him — Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind), Hugo Friedhofer (An Affair to Remember), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood) — there was “definitely a lock on the field.”

After composing music for low-budget films and television, Shire’s big motion-picture break came when Coppola asked him to score The Conversation. “It was the first high-profile movie I’d been hired for, this big Paramount film, so I’m thinking at last I’ll have a big orchestra,” he says.

But that wall-to-wall orchestral sound was not what Coppola had in mind for his film about surveillance expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman. “Francis said to me: ‘I hear a piano score. It’s a very intimate picture so I don’t want anything big.’” And Coppola was right, says Shire, whose piano theme melds into the film’s soundscape, perfectly mirroring Caul’s alienation.

“I find the score very haunting, very sparse,” says Skrow. “It just went right into the character, capturing his sense of privacy.” Skrow also praises Shire’s versatility, which over the past five decades has extended beyond film, into musical theatre and pop hits: “He’s one of those composers who can do absolutely anything.”

At a rare screening of Stephen Sondheim’s TV musical Evening Primrose, starring Anthony Perkins, Shire will again take the stage and discuss his collaboration with Sondheim. “It was thrilling to work with Steve. He was a mentor to us and still inspires new generations,” he adds.

Shire, whose recent work includes David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), always seeks to complement the film — not overshadow it — and prides himself on the fact his scores all sound different. But his resistance to being pigeonholed also hurt his career: “There’s a lot of typecasting in film scoring and most producers want to be familiar with your sound before they hire you.”

Still, he stands by his philosophy. “Each film, especially the better it is, is its own work of art in its own environment.”

The Conversation: Screening and Talk with David Shire takes place Sunday, May 6, 7 p.m., at Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Ave. For full festival and sidebar listings, see tjff.com

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on May 2, 2012.