Interview with Stephen Raynor- Endelman
Few English composers have gotten to score the stylistic extremes of America like the creatively and physically pugnacious Stephen Raynor-Endelman, a musician of all emotional trades if there ever was one. A musical prodigy who’d write two operas by the wage of 18, Endelman moved to New York to start fulfilling a movie scoring career with such individualistic, eccentric scores as “Household Saints” “Postcards from America” and “Imaginary Crimes.” His music depicting rough and tumble lives with humanity to spare before going back to the British and Irish isles with the romantic comedy, and fatherly drama of “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” and “Evelyn.” But it was Endelman’s wacked-out way with rhythm that helped spur “Flirting with Disaster’s” cross-country identity crisis. He’d sailing the southern byways of “The Journey of August King” and “Tom and Huck,” use head-smashing percussion for “City of Industry,” kicked ass for David Mamet with “Redbelt” and battle cancer for the show “Chasing Life.” Endelman also accompanied Mahler himself with “Bride of the Wind” and adapted the music of Cole Porter in “De-Lovely,” getting a Grammy nomination for its album. These are but a few of the entries in an impressive near-death career that’s ranged from the blazingly orchestral to the wackily unplugged for Endelman’s distinctive, ever-striving voice that’s survived by being a force of nature.
Now as a new year begins, two scores prove an impressive contrast in Endelman’s keen musical psychology. And there are certainly warped, percussive brain cells to play inside the head of “Madoff,” an ABC miniseries that has Richard Dreyfuss using his mensch-ish charisma to mask an evil genius whose pyramid scheme horrifically collapsed on thousands of investors, let alone his own seemingly oblivious family. Greed is indeed good in Endelman’s score that teams him again with director Raymond De Felitta, who provided the composer with some of his most humane work in “Two Family House” and “Rob the Mob.” Here, it’s a feeling of coldness that rules “Madoff,” clever samples embodying rushing dollar signs and clanging cash registers, as contrasted with a chamber orchestra that gives a classic sense of villainy to high finance’s most infamous figure. The musical tricks that “Madoff’s” score might use are high tech, but Endelman’s effective use of strings that let us know it’s a sad tale of hubris as old as time that’s bound to come crumbling down.
Conversely, it’s Endelman’s music that captures the honestly can-do, faith-based Americana spirit of “Greater.” Like “Rudy,” this sports biopic is about a completely unlikely guy on the field, if one who is certainly not small in stature. Described as “the greatest walk-on in college football,” the giant Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) made an attention capturing play with the Razorbacks that would likely have made him a legend with the Indianapolis Colts. However, tragedy intervenes with his NFL destiny, leaving Brandon’s devastated brother Marty (Neal McDonough) to recover his own shattered belief. But as opposed to the kind of “big game” scoring one might expect here. Endelman takes a more intimate path with affecting, rustic Americana that get across Brian’s homegrown roots and Christianity, a tender piano as mighty as 100 orchestral players. While “Greater” certainly makes some big patriotic plays, it’s capturing a poignant spirit of an ever-optimistic individual that’s gives this powerful score its winning, soaring play – as well as Endelman’s own in real life.
“Madoff” reteams you with director Raymond De Felitta, who’s provided you with some of your best films, and scores with “Two Family House” and “Rob the Mob.” How would you describe your partnership, and why it works so well?
It’s the best. We understand each other’s sensibilities. He trusts me to give him something new and original each time. I’m respectful of Raymond’s vision, and “Madoff” was no exception. Raymond sent me the script I read all 4 hours that night and the following morning went to my studio and started to compose the first theme, which was Bernie’s. Raymond and David Leornard, his long time editor, don’t like to use temporary soundtracks, so I’m always sure to provide original music for the first day of principle photography. David then plays around with the music and asks for additional cues and so on and so forth. By the mix of the show everyone had chimed in, but the “Madoff” score was still pretty much as I had originally intended it, only embedded in the film. It’s an extremely elegant way to work but it requires trust and collaboration between all the parties. Luckily our producer Linda Berman was respectful and detailed on the program. This was a blessed project for me.
Your scores have dealt with overtly criminal and violent enterprises before in “City of Industry” and “Rob the Mob.” What do you think makes musical “white collar” crime different?
In a nutshell, violent crime has a grittiness that allows one to be edgy and dark. “City of Industry” is probably my darkest score as it uses low tones, low percussion and the haunting Bulgarian folk fiddle. “Rob the Mob,” whilst dark, is also a romance if not a little peculiar. I think when you’re dealing with dark people who do bad things to others you need to be conscious of what makes them tick. Bernie Madoff is no exception. He’s almost Shakespearean, so I needed a balance between the big-hearted family man and the sociopath who is devoid of morality. That was quite a challenge, especially given Richard Dreyfuss’ own Shakespearean performance and the requirements of the ABC network.
When you first heard about the Bernie Madoff scandal, what were your thoughts? Did you know anybody who was a victim of him?
I did not know anyone and of course I was very disturbed. However, I find Bernie Madoff a fascinating person, a sociopath who never made one investment. I looked at him as a classic antihero – loved by all, but evil to the core. That’s what makes him and his story interesting. Subsequently I’ve met people who lost money with him, a family member who ran his charity and one of the lawyer trustees who was trying to get the investors’ money returned. The later was the most fascinating, as she’s going after the banks that knowingly took billions of dollars in fees. There is a parallel between Bernie Madoff and the Boston priest sexual abuse story in “Spotlight,” though none of those leading figures will ever do time. I always find that disturbing. Even if these stories are historic, if people are guilty they should be found guilty. I’d like to see the statue of limitations in the U.S. removed in certain types of crime, if not all.
If you’ve ever been the victim of having your financial, or creative trust violated by someone you thought was infallible, how did you channel that emotion into this score?
That’s a very complicated question. I don’t know that I’ve ever been violated creatively, or not that I know of. However, I have felt betrayed and perhaps that does translate into this score. There are some unusual choices of harmony and counterpoint to some textures that grate in places. Perhaps that comes from betrayal. In hindsight, perhaps some of the disconnected rhythms in the strings might allude to emotional violation.
As a composer who takes pride in their Jewish identity, were you angry with Bernie Madoff on the level of someone who gave ammunition to those who viewed Jews as devious manipulators of high finance who didn’t care how much destruction they caused?
Naturally I wish Madoff were a WASP. But alas, when you see the show and you learn a little more about what motivated him you begin to understand his madness. There are bad apples in every box. Unfortunately he’s one of the worst, and a Jew. However, him being sentenced to 150 years? I question why the banks and financial institutions aren’t doing time as well. For the most part the score is in minor keys. There is a little flavor of modal harmony but it’s not a traditional “Jewish” sounding score. Having said that, Jewish music is in my blood as much as it was in Mahler’s. My music has a plaintive quality, a sense of yearning even when it’s happy. That however has perhaps more to do with personality than Jewishness. I’m also a mutt, a British- Dutch-Russian Jew. I think the British side comes across in movies like “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. But only time will tell!
Nowadays the “event’ miniseries all seem to be on cable channels. What do you think makes “Madoff” unique for one of the few recent times we’ve seen a project like this on a network?
It’s shot by a brilliant filmmaker who saw his vision and has put it on the small screen. It doesn’t compromise. “Madoff” is gritty and very detailed. Is that unique for network television? It also challenges the audience yet it’s extremely entertaining, gripping and informative. Is that also a function of television? The famous NBC executive Pat Weaver certainly thought so.
Do you see “Madoff” as a tragedy? And if so, why should we even feel sorry for him or his family?
No. The tragedy is the people he stole from. However, he was not alone. Greed fueled many people who also knew him. They knew something had to be up, but they didn’t want to deal with it because they were all making so much money.
Part of the score is rooted in a chamber string approach, while the other uses a more modernistic rhythmic approach. How did you arrive at that balance? And what kind of instruments did you use to achieve it?
I balanced a string quartet with modern percussion and unusual personal sounds I created for “Madoff.” I wanted to find a way to drive the show and at the same time write musical lines that related to the characters and their development. That’s always my approach. “Madoff” was a wonderful tapestry for this and for me, very rich indeed.
How did you want to play the “ticking clock” quality that builds to the inevitable point when Madoff’s pyramid scheme collapses?
I did that in two ways by increasing the tempo as the cues progressed and accelerating it within the cues.
Would you say there’s an off-kilter quality to “Madoff’s” music, something that doesn’t quite “connect” in its score, much like Madoff’s inability to realize how he’s truly victimizing people?
The music is off kilter rather like “The Fiddle on the Roof.” It’s very grounded in its point of view but it has a designed oddness that reflects the way Richard Dreyfuss plays Bernie.
Now let’s move onto “Greater.” Were you familiar with Brian Burlsworth before taking on the film? And once doing so, what was your process like to capture his indomitable spirit?
I had no idea who Brandon Burlsworth was and I know nothing about college football. However, like “Madoff,” when I first saw a very rough cut of the film with no temp, I went to work and wrote themes. They are still in the movie.
Did any great sports scores, especially football-themed ones, play inspiration to your own approach, especially as this your first “true” sports score as such?
Yes, especially “Field of Dreams.” The producers and I discussed a lot of scores like that.
Most sports scores are done about iconic figures, many of who have had their careers cut short by fate. What kind of weight do you think this puts on you as a composer to “live up” to the legend, without getting over-sentimental in your approach – especially as “Greater” is a “faith-based” movie?
That’s a very subjective question. This is a heartfelt sports film that looks at a young mans faith. Brandon believed so profoundly that he had a mission and that his God would help him get there. He believed, and that’s what attracted me to the film. Over sentimental is very hard. It’s an orchestral score with real themes that develop. It’s also about a hero, a young man, troubled for sure, but strong enough to overcome his obstacles and achieve his dream.
How did you want Brian’s strong Christian beliefs to be reflected in the score, as well as the rustic, “Americana” quality of his upbringing?
I tried to steer away from any religious quality to the music. Instead I went for a very simple and plaintive piano melody that our director David Hunt and his co-writer Brian Reindl fell in love with. It’s a seven-note phrase that repeats at various times in the film.
The piano usually doesn’t usually play a big part in “sports” scores. Why did you accentuate the instrument here?
Simply put, the piano in this context becomes Brandon’s inner voice. He was deeply religious, a pious young man and the simplicity of the piano best expressed that.
Were those kind of soaring, Americana “big” speech or big game moments in any sports score something you were looking forward to here?
Yes but that’s not really what this score is about. The biggest moment is a four-minute cue where Brandon trains very hard. There are other moments like when Brandon goes into the stadium for the first time. There’s also the “We Trust” cue where Brandon’s brother Marty realizes his faith, having lost it with his brother’s untimely death.
You might be the only movie composer who can actually punch out someone in the boxing ring. Do you think any of that “musical” discipline as such translates to football?
I don’t know if I could punch someone out today! But yes, as a classical musician, I work very hard practicing every day. I feel the same why as a sports person who has to work on all aspects of his game. I write everyday I practice my technique. I study. I listen to music. I read scores. But mainly I just go to work and write. I have a set of skills that thus far have not let me down. I get to do something I love I’m a very lucky person. On occasion I get to make a few bob (money)
As an English-born composer, you’ve done a considerable amount of scores about all facets of the “American” experience from the working class of “Household Saints” and “A Bronx Tale” to the returning veterans of “Home of the Brave” and its wealthy excesses like “Madoff” and the best of its spirit in “Greater.” How do you think living in this country and working on more artistically driven projects have influenced your work?
I think I love the characters of each movie or TV project I’ve ever done. Even Bernie Madoff. Not literally, but musically. I’ve been very lucky, whether it be Harvey Keitel in “Imaginary Crimes,” Kevin Kline in “De-Lovely” or Pierce Brosnan in “Evelyn.” I fall in love with their characters and I try to develop music around them and their situations. One of my biggest thrills was leaning late last year in an article I happened to stumble upon was learning that the main theme from “The Englishman” was used by NBC for both the Los Angeles and Beijing Olympics. In Los Angeles they used it for Ali lighting the torch.
You’ve gone through more health scares and seemingly improbable recoveries than most composers can imagine. How important was music to your survival? And did that essentially make you the perfect composer to score a cancer survivor show like “Chasing Life?”
Music saved my life. I lay in my hospital bed at UCLA for seven months listening to a playlist of six symphonic works, all slow movements from my favorite symphonies, always getting anxious if the battery on my iPhone would die. Those pieces and their tempos and orchestral forces reached into brain and heart and helped save me. Yes, “Chasing Life” was very interesting to score. Not because of the music per say, but because each week I got to see if they were doing it right. It’s about a young woman getting AML that’s an aggressive blood cancer, leukemia. She has a transplant I had a transplant. They got it right even if it got a little soapy. Being in a hospital bed for seven months is no fun. I was in a coma for almost three months. My family and friends and doctors had no idea if I’d recover walk, talk or write music again. When I woke up I could talk. But I could not walk or move my hands I’d atrophied, and all I wanted to do was to get back to writing music. It’s taken a few years to really recover both physically, emotionally, medically and spiritually. But I have, and last year I was pronounced cured. It’s a very strange feeling, but also an empowering one.
You’ve also been open about sexual abuse that happened to you as a young man. How do you want to channel this experience into a film called “A Boy, A Man and His Kite,” and what do you want people to get out of it?
I’m using a short film I’ve written, and which Raymond De Felitta has agreed to film, as a launching pad for my charity Consent. Consent is a word that’s not given its fullest meaning nor taught. I recently was a witness for the prosecution in a historic sexual abuse case. I went to London to confront my abuser or at least look at him. It was a three-week trial. It was the most empowering feeling I’ve ever had when the Forman of the jury said 25 times “Guilty.” Both me and one other witness held hands and cried. Our abuser Trevor Bolton was given a life sentence. As a result of that case and the events leading up to my abuse 38 years ago, I’ve decided to adjust my name to Stephen Raynor-Endelman. Rather like wavering my anonymity for the BBC, as my birth name was Raynor and my stepfather’s name was Endelman. You will see that name on both “Greater” and “Madoff.”
If Bernie Madoff ever gets to see this miniseries, what do you want him to think when he hears your score?
I don’t know that I give a shit what Bernie thinks of my music. His opinion has no importance to me, nor anyone else. I hope people at large enjoy the music as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Conversely, how do you want “Greater’s” score to inspire people, whether they’re into sports of not?
I want people to enjoy the music and be inspired by the film. If the music helps that, then I’ve done my job.
What’s ahead for you?
My films and a Broadway show. That’s what I’m most excited about today!
Watch “Madoff” on ABC February 3rd and 4th at 8 PM. “Greater” premieres in theaters on January 29th, with Stephen Raynor-Endelman’s score available on Lakeshore Records soon.
Visit Stephen Endelman’s website HERE