Miklós Rózsa - Musician of the Cinema

Interview by George Cohen, from Premičre magazine, March 1980
(Translated from French by Mike Quigley with help)

The most prestigious musician in the history of the cinema, Miklós Rózsa is now seventy-three years old and still lives in Hollywood.
Premičre was able to meet the man who scored Ben-Hur, El Cid and Providence.

Miklos Rozsa

Premičre: First, Miklós Rózsa, why did you leave Hungary?

Miklós Rózsa: It was in 1925, I was 18 years old and I wanted to start studying music. But my dad figured this wasn’t serious. The only thing that interested me outside of music was chemistry, so I went to the University of Leipzig, the best in this field. But it didn’t work, because I was spending so much time composing music on the side. So I ended up choosing the Leipzig Conservatory where I was immediately accepted and where my teacher had to convince my father that I was good at music. Then, in 1930, I was invited to the Bayreuth Festival, where I met the great French organist and composer Marcel Dupré. Five of my chamber music works had already been published, and Monsieur Dupré offered to give a concert in Paris. He organized everything.

Premičre: You later went to London, too?

M.R.: Indeed, I went there in 1935 to write a ballet, and in 1936, I met the filmmaker Jacques Feyder there, whom I had known in Paris. He didn’t speak English well and had difficulty making himself understood by the woman who did his laundry. I helped him, he invited me to a nightclub (it was the first and last time I went to this kind of place), and at the end the first bottle of champagne which he emptied practically alone, he told me that I was the best composer in the world. After the second bottle, Beethoven no longer existed, Mozart was an idiot... In short, he ended up offering me the music for his film Knight Without Armor. The next day, he invited me to lunch with two other people, Mr. and Mrs. Sieber, and the lady immediately asked me, “Is my song finished?” Feyder hadn’t even told me the subject of the film. So, in a low voice, I asked him who this woman was, and he replied, “Stupid, it’s Marlene Dietrich!” I had seen The Blue Angel, but had not recognized her.

Premičre: So Knight Without Armor became your first film score. How did you feel about this? Did you think that writing a film score was inferior to writing “classical” music?

M.R.: No, not at all, it was simply the first time that I had composed “dramatic” music and that interested me. Feyder was satisfied, as well as the film’s producer, who was none other than Alexander Korda. I continued to work with him in London.

Premičre: So at this point, were you attracted to Hollywood? Did you get an offer from the States?

M.R.: No, I never thought of Hollywood, I was very happy in London. In 1939, I worked on the music for The Thief of Bagdad and in September of that same year, a little event occurred in Europe, as you know. There was no more money to finish the film in London, and Korda was able to transfer everything to Hollywood. We were only supposed to stay two or three months, but I actually worked on four other films produced by Korda in the United States, including That Hamilton Woman with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. In 1942, Korda returned to London to receive the title of “Sir” and I stayed in Hollywood.

Premičre: Eventually, your name became associated with epic or historical films. How did you come by this label? Were you really inclined towards this kind of material?

M.R.: I had four periods in Hollywood. First, I was the specialist in Oriental-type music, with The Thief of Bagdad, The Four Feathers and Sahara. In 1945, I did the music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond The Door, which had a Freudian background, and I became Doctor Rózsa in psychology. In 1946, it was The Killers by Robert Siodmak, The Naked City by Jules Dassin, and I was catalogued as the musical Al Capone. Finally, my first major historical film was Quo Vadis in 1950, and so I spent a lot of time with other films of this nature: Julius Cćsar, Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table, and the peak was Ben-Hur. I was under contract for fourteen years with MGM, and it was the company that made the biggest movies at the time.

Premičre: It was also a time when music was wall-to-wall in Hollywood films. Was this something that producers demanded or was it really a necessity?

M.R.: No, I think it was a necessity, at least for the historical film, because the music alone transported you to another time.

Premičre: The work of the composer on such films must have been enormous, heroic, compared to that of a psychological film, for example.

M.R.: The composer's problems were simply different for these two types of films. A psychological film demands something more intimate and the music can really complement the image, as an actor cannot pinpoint exactly what is going on in the character's mind; this is where the music plays its role and takes over.

Premičre: While historical music is more of a work in itself?

M.R.: Yes, it is a larger work, like a large fresco.

Premičre: Of all the great directors you knew at Hollywood – Wilder, Minnelli, Cukor, Hitchcock – which ones impressed you the most? Were there any personality clashes?

M.R.: No, it always went well, except with John Huston who seemed quite pretentious to me. In fact, my most interesting collaboration was the most recent, Time After Time. Its director, Nicholas Meyer, is a very cultured writer, he has thousands of records, knows all the operas by heart and gave musical suggestions that I followed.

Premičre: On the other hand, did other directors seem to you to lack musical culture?

M.R.: Yes, almost all of them. But that’s not necessarily a problem. For example, Fritz Lang didn’t know anything about music but he knew exactly what he wanted, he knew if a scene had dramatic intensity or not for Secret Beyond The Door. I played him the score on the piano while we were watching the film, and I said to him: “There will be an oboe there, there a cello, etc.”, and we had no disagreement.

Premičre: How have you typically worked on films – do you get involved when reading the script, seeing the rushes or once the film is well along?

M.R.: I often started by reading the script, but you can’t do much at this stage, except write a few themes. Usually the work of the composer starts when the film is pretty well put together.

Premičre: How did it go with Hitchcock for Spellbound?

M.R.: He liked the music I had composed for Double Indemnity. So I met him, as well as his producer, David O. Selznick. They showed me the film and asked me to write two themes, a great love theme – Hollywood always needed one – and a “new sound” to illustrate the illness of Gregory Peck’s character, who has amnesia in the film. For this, I used something quite new, the theremin, a device that emitted electric waves, named after the Russian physicist who invented it. For this Hitchcock film, they even provided me with an entire orchestra to help me work on the three-minute razor scene. But at that time, money was not a big deal, each film had its demands.

Premičre: George Cukor and Minnelli are directors concerned with the aesthetics of film. Did they have specific ideas about the music?

M.R.: They both had a lot of talent. Minnelli worked very closely with me for the waltz in Madame Bovary. For six weeks, we ate every day in a Chinese restaurant to talk about the film. With Cukor, I won an Oscar for the music of A Double Life which starred Ronald Colman, but there had been a problem: the musical director of Universal Studios had asked me to change the music for the opening credits, which he found too “modern”. But Cukor supported me, telling me in a very theatrical way: “If you change a single note, I’ll kill you!” That’s all I wanted to hear.

Premičre: Overall, you had a certain amount of freedom with your film scores. There weren’t too many constraints or conflicts of this kind?

M.R.: Absolutely. When you have a certain reputation, people respect you. However, Hitchcock did not accept Bernard Herrmann’s music for Torn Curtain and had it replaced. I found that awful. That said, music directors at major studios were usually Broadway musicians, arrangers who only wanted what they knew: variety music. For Double Indemnity, the musical director said to me: “It’s too dissonant, it’s music for Carnegie Hall.” I thanked him because for me that was a compliment, of course.

Premičre: Have you ever felt trapped writing music for great films? Didn’t you want to go back to pure composition?

M.R.: I have always composed for myself. I had to change my contract with MGM because at the beginning I really had to devote 52 weeks a year to them. I managed to bring this figure down to forty weeks because, geographically, I wanted to draw a border with Hollywood. I always spent the three summer months in Italy where I composed concerti.

Premičre: Did you consider film music a recreation, an entertainment?

M.R.: Not always, I considered Ben-Hur’s music as seriously as an oratorio. I composed my last concerto over three years, during three successive summers, but we must not forget that for a film, everything must be done in six weeks. It’s pretty difficult.

Premičre: You know that film music has often been criticized for over-dramatizing...

M.R.: With films, we have to determine if the music is necessary for this or that scene. If it is, you have to score it. But I actually don’t like to over-dramatize. Sometimes it’s been Hollywood’s fault, with a composer like Max Steiner musically describing someone coming down the stairs, and it’s dong, dong, dong. I call this “music for the blind.” A good composer does not fall into these kind of clichés. It should be noted that Max Steiner invented this style, though.

Premičre: Do you think a film can be made with virtually no music?

M.R.: This has been tried, for example, with Hitchcock’s Lifeboat [which has no score, other than the music for the credits]. Hitchcock [responding to the music director, who complained about the lack of a score] said: “We are in the middle of the ocean, there is no orchestra.” [But] the musical director retorted: “Where did the camera come from?”

Premičre: What do you think of film music recordings?

M.R.: It’s excellent for the composer and a good way to musically educate people. There have been over three million Star Wars albums sold and it’s not even rock and roll!

— Interview by George Cohen