"I live with deadlines every day," he says. "By the time you read a newspaper in the morning, do your work here and check into the house later, the day is gone." He cocks his head a moment, wanting to amend. "I don't say that with pleasure. In the exercise of what I do, a lot of things get neglected. As a young person, working as much as I did, blessed to do it, but with the children, not having enough time for their needs. Even now, it is hard to find an hour in my life to do something like this, as pleasurable as it might be."
He is thinking of problems to solve in his current, and sixth, "Star Wars" score. "When you look at it," he says, "it's not unlike journalism. Not so dissimilar. I need to do a certain amount every day; if I don't, the next day I have twice as much, so I can't really go back and fuss and obsess. I put in my briefcase what I did today, and tomorrow I'll fill up those pages there."
John Williams has scored nearly 80 films and earned five Oscars, 17 Grammys, three Golden Globes and two Emmys.
(Above: AP Right: Gerard Burkhart For The Washington Post)
Those pages are on his drafting table, some blank, others covered in jots, the dots and strokes of notes, in a script precise and fluid. (He doesn't use a synthesizer or, really, any electronics: "I'm antediluvian that way," he says. "The venerable pencil and paper.")
Does he ever get stumped? "Writer's block doesn't enter into it. The way you unblock yourself is to work. And you have to write so quickly and write so much music, it's a six-day job. I used to make the joke: To be successful in Hollywood, it's not so important to be good, it's more important to be strong."
Writing orchestral music for films is a creative, but brutal, art.
The young John Williams grew up in a musical household, studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco at UCLA, then piano with Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard in New York. He also played jazz, then got his first paying gigs back home in Los Angeles with film scoring greats Alfred Newman at 20th Century Fox and Morris Stoloff at Columbia Pictures. There he got the bug to write "medium music," or music that accompanies another medium like film, television or commercials.
There followed a bunch of music for TV ("Gilligan's Island," "Lost in Space," "Kraft Suspense Theatre"). Then his mastery-of-disaster phase: "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake."
Then creative pay dirt: "Jaws" in 1975.
When Williams agrees to score a movie, he follows a very strict regimen. He won't, for example, read a script or even a book that the project may be based upon (an exception: He read "Harry Potter" with his grandkids before he scored the film). Instead, he awaits the rough cut.
"And then I will sit down and look at film with the director," he explains. "I prefer not to read scripts. Because I'd like to have a pristine reaction to film, as a reader would to a novel, to not know what comes on the next page. Because that first impression of surprise, shock, excitement, boredom if it dips, because that sense of ebb, flow and tempo is best gotten from a viewer who doesn't really know what to expect next."
As Williams watches the musicless movie, sitting beside Spielberg (or Oliver Stone, or Brian De Palma), he or an assistant is scribbling notes. "So those first impressions are fresh with me in the ensuing weeks as I write the music," he says.
In this meeting and following ones, the director and Williams will discuss where music will play, and as importantly, where it will not.
"From this, we have an outline, a gestalt, silhouette of the sound and music approach to the whole soundtrack," he says.
And then Williams is left pretty much alone with his ticking clock.