Here's How The Score Of 'Apocalypse Now' Originally Sounded

Jan 8, 2018
Originally published on February 3, 2018 6:18 pm

David Shire was hired to compose the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now but had a falling out with the film's director Francis Ford Coppola. Now, Shire's original electronic, all-synthesizer score is being released for the first time.

Shire says he'd mostly forgotten about the music he wrote for Apocalypse Now. He heard it again for the first time a little over four years ago, playing back from a cassette that'd been gathering dust in a drawer.

"I listened to it and thought, 'Where did all of that stuff come from?,'" Shire tells NPR reporter Rick Karr.

For Apocalypse Now, Coppola originally wanted a fully-orchestrated score played entirely on analog synthesizers.

"The reason Francis wanted an all-synthesized score instead of an orchestra was precisely because it had a little inherent coldness to it," he says.

In 1976, while Coppola decamped to The Philippines to shoot the film, Shire began drafting ideas for the score in a Los Angeles studio. He didn't want the synthesizers to simply emulate strings, brass and woodwinds. He wanted to hear imaginary instruments with novel tones. He wrote down rough descriptions of sounds he wanted like 'celeste with gong ring-off,' or an instrument he dubbed the 'scumbone,' — something of a dirty, huge trombone.

But although Shire had been writing for synths for years, he had never learned how to program one, much less a whole ensemble of them. For that he turned to Dan Wyman, a musician itching to change the way most people heard synthesizers. Wyman's job was to figure out how to make the massive synthesizers generate the sounds Shire heard in his head.

"Synthesizers were capable of so much more," Wyman says. "David knew that, Francis Coppola certainly knew that. We needed, in our own minds, to prove that the instrument could be as human as human players, but more wonderful."

Recording a couple minutes of music could take days. But they had the time. Coppola's film shoot in The Philippines dragged on thanks to a hurricane and casting issues.

Apocalypse Now seemed to be stalled, so Shire took an offer to work on the score of another film. This did not sit well with Coppola.

"'I had to take another job,' I said. He said, 'Well, I can't deal with that,' and I was fired with a very short phone call," Shire says.

Shire also happened to be going through a divorce with Coppola's sister at the time. The director hired his father, Carmine, instead, who started from scratch on the score. Shire remembers he was devastated, but says he understands what Coppola was going through to make the film.

"We were working in a very sanitized, quiet, safe environment," Shire says.

Like David Shire, Francis Ford Coppola had forgotten about the abandoned score. Now, nearly 40 years later, the ex brothers-in-law have reconciled. A picture in the CD liner notes shows the two grinning, side by side, at the wedding of Shire's son, Coppola's nephew.

David Shire's Apocalypse Now (The Unused Score) is available now. A broadcast version of this story will be available soon.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With the award season upon us, you might have movies on your mind, so this seemed like a good time to tell you the story behind a famous film score. Remember the helicopter attack scene in the film "Apocalypse Now"?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "APOCALYPSE NOW")

MARTIN: The composer initially hired to score the film had a completely different sound in mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES")

MARTIN: David Shire's all-synthesizer score was never used, but now, nearly 40 years later, it's been released. Rick Karr has the story.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Composer David Shire says he'd mostly forgotten the music he wrote for "Apocalypse Now." He heard it again for the first time a little over four years ago playing back from a cassette that had been gathering dust in a drawer.

DAVID SHIRE: I couldn't believe that all that music was written because I guess I had repressed it. You know, I listened to it and thought, where did all that stuff come from? I don't remember working on the picture that long.

KARR: But he had, for about a year and a half. We'll get to why he repressed those memories in a bit. Shire had already collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola on the film "The Conversation." For that score, the director had asked Shire to stick to the piano. For "Apocalypse Now," Coppola wanted a fully-orchestrated score played entirely on analog synthesizers.

SHIRE: The reason Francis wanted a all-synthesized score instead of an orchestra was precisely because it had a little inherent coldness to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "VILLAGE ASSAULT")

KARR: Coppola decamped to the Philippines to shoot the film. Shire began drafting ideas for the score in a Los Angeles studio. He didn't want the synthesizers to simply emulate strings, brass, woodwinds and so on. In his head, Shire heard imaginary instruments with novel tones.

SHIRE: What I would do is write in rough descriptions of the sounds I wanted - like, celeste with gong ring-off or that instrument we dubbed the scumbone. It sounds like a dirty, huge trombone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "VILLAGE ASSAULT")

KARR: David Shire was one of Hollywood's go-to composers at the time. He'd scored TV shows, including "McCloud," and such films as "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three" and "Saturday Night Fever." He'd been writing for synths for years but he'd never learned how to program one, much less a whole ensemble of them. So he turned to a musician who was just itching to change the way most people heard synthesizers.

DAN WYMAN: They were gimmicks. You heard them on Toyota ads.

KARR: Dan Wyman's job was to figure out how to make the massive synthesizers of the time generate the sounds Shire heard in his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "ORANGE LIGHT")

KARR: Wyman was already doing that job for filmmaker and composer John Carpenter, musician Stevie Wonder and others. He had something to prove.

WYMAN: Synthesizers were capable of so much more. David knew that. Francis Coppola certainly knew that. We needed in our own minds to prove that the instrument could be as human as human players but more wonderful.

KARR: Some of the sounds for Shire's score required three synthesists to make one sound, and the parts had to be layered one at a time. Recording a couple of minutes of music could take days.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "HELL-ICOPTER")

KARR: Still, there was lots of downtime. Francis Ford Coppola's shoot in the Philippines dragged on and on thanks to a hurricane, casting issues and Marlon Brando. "Apocalypse Now" seemed to be stalled, so Shire took an offer to score another film. Then he got a call from Coppola.

SHIRE: I had to take another job. He said, well, I can't deal with that. And I was fired with a very short phone call.

KARR: Turns out, Shire was also going through a divorce with Coppola's sister at the time. The director hired his father, Carmine, who started from scratch on the score. Shire says he was devastated, but he understands what Coppola was going through to make the film.

SHIRE: We were working in a very sanitized, quiet, safe environment, and he was going through hell down there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "KURTZ CALLING")

KARR: Like David Shire, Francis Ford Coppola had forgotten about the abandoned score. But the ex-brothers-in-law have reconciled. A picture in the CD liner notes shows the two grinning side-by-side at the wedding of Shire's son, Coppola's nephew. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID SHIRE'S "KURTZ CALLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.