Though he’s best known as the generationally talented drummer for multiplatinum hitmakers the Police and jammy supergroup Oysterhead, Stewart Copeland also made quite a name for himself as a film composer, scoring everything from films Wall Street, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Talk Radio, and She’s All That, to TV series The Equalizer, Babylon 5 and Desperate Housewives.
When he sat down with Q’s Will Harris for a wide-ranging interview published this week, Copeland offered a frequently hilarious remembrance of his first trial-by-fire as a film composer.
As Copeland explained to Q: “I would humbly submit that the film composer has the widest set of musical skills among all different kinds of musicians, because he has to. An artist follows their own instinct and goes only where their instinct takes them. A film composer has to go here, he has to go there, because that what his boss, his employer, directs him to do.”
He then shared memories of his very first film scoring gig, which was for none other than Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish. “When Francis, my boss, turns around to me and says, ‘Well, this is all really great, but we need some strings,’ I had to go out and figure out strings!” Copeland remembered. “And I call up the contractor and say, ‘The director wants strings!’ He says, ‘Okay, how many?’ ‘I don't know. Strings! Plural! More than two!’”
Working with a session guitarist for the score, Copeland explained, was easy, as he could spend an afternoon talking through ideas and experimenting. When the string section arrived, however, things got trickier.
“These guys come in, and I spend that same amount of time jiving them up and saying, ‘So in this scene, we need this and we need that…' And instead of them looking inspired, like the guitarist, they're looking more and more anxious. And eventually one of them raises his hand and he says, ‘Maestro, do you want us to play what's on the page here, or do you want us to play whatever the f**k you're talking about?’ I said, ‘Play the page.’ And it was a real easy page. It was all whole notes, because I didn't have the technique to write anything more complicated than that.
“They were done in 20 minutes. Instead of an afternoon, they were gone in 20 minutes! And I'm looking at the rest of the afternoon, going, ‘Well, that was easy! Damn, you just put it on the page, and they play it!’ … And so began my decades-long journey with the orchestra. And I never would've gone there if my boss hadn't told me, his employee, to go there! And in the next 20 years as a film composer - I retired 15 years ago - I was forced to go here and hither and yon, and learn all kinds of stuff that I never would've learned if I was just pursuing my own artistic vision. So I thank all those bosses that I had.”
Copeland has since retired from film scoring, though he credits his two decades in the trenches for preparing him for his next musical adventure, writing opera.
“You know, the film composer's not even an artist. He's a craftsman,” Copeland told Q. “But, man, those two decades, I sure did pick up some craft. So now I'm actually doing the same job, just not in Hollywood. I write opera, which is the same thing. The relationship between story and music is very profound, and I'm still doing that, only with a slightly different business model. The business model of opera is to lose rich people's money. [Laughs.] And it's just art for art's sake, because it's cool. Period. No bottom line.”