"First is merely the realization that film composers are in the film business, NOT the music business." - Richard Bellis
Richard Bellis' career in show business ranges from child actor, to composer, to educator and author, and more. After years of working as arranger and music director for Las Vegas acts like Connie Stevens, Leslie Uggams, Abbe Lane and Sally Struthers, Bellis landed his first TV movie, "Black Market Baby", in 1977. He later won an Emmy for his score to Stephen King's "It". Richard is also a past president of the Society of Composers and Lyricists, served on the faculty at USC's SMPTV program, and served on the Board of Governers of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Richard currently serves on the Board of Directors of ASCAP.
With Halloween approaching, and my annual horror movie marathon nearing its climax, I reached out to Richard for a Q&A to celebrate the season and one of my favorite 1980s horror movies, "It".
Nick Dolan: You have a pretty diverse background, from child actor to arranger to composer/author/educator and even more. Could you talk a little about your musical background from the beginning?
Richard Bellis: I started studying piano at about age 9. Not the usual kind of piano lessons, however. My teacher would arrange the first 8 bars to Lullaby of Birdland while I was sitting with him on the piano bench. He would take me through it and if, the following week, I had worked on it and could play it pretty well, he would write out the next 8 bars. This resulted in a fascination with writing music and an introduction to chord progressions involving major and minor sevenths, raised nine chords and a whole raft of terrific voicings, unlike those one would be introduced to by traditional piano exercises.
My dad was a junior high school band and orchestra teacher (my band and orchestra teacher) and a former dance band leader. When I was 13, I asked him to teach me transposition so I could write some of the new chords I had been learning from my piano teacher for other instruments. I was hooked. By now I was playing trumpet, had formed a dixieland band and at around 16 was arranging for and playing in big bands.
At 18, I was hired as musical director for the road version of an ABC television show called Shindig. That later led to a job conducting for Johnny Mathis on a world tour. I was drafted into the Army shortly after that tour and spent time arranging for two military bands and a big band. After getting out, I arranged for a variety of Las Vegas performers and conducted for several. I didn’t score my first film until age 31.
ND: And how was it making the jump from arranger and music director to film composer? What was your first experience like?
RB: I had been arranging and conducting for a lot of artists, among them, the Four King Cousins. Jim Green, husband of one of the cousins and a fledgling producer was doing his first movie for television and, not knowing a lot of composers, asked my writing partner, George Wilkins and me to score the film.
It was accelerating and scary all at the same time. Remember, there were no courses in being a film composer in those days. I had little idea what to do at a spotting session, which was held in a screening room with a union projectionist running a 35 mm work print of the movie. If you wanted to stop and go back to look at a scene, you had to pick up a telephone receiver and asks the projectionist to stop and roll back to a certain footage. Very intimidating. I had a music editor named Irma Leven who pulled me through the project and taught me almost everything I know about being a film composer. A very fortunate set of circumstances.
ND: I'm a huge fan of the movie "It", and have always loved the music. Could you talk a little (or a lot) about your experiences working on that movie?
RB: The music business had slowed to almost a ‘stop’ for me in the mid 1980s. My wife and I started a custom woodworking business making rack mount cabinets and console surrounds for recording studios as well as kitchen cabinets, conference tables, etc. (One of our last projects was Jerry Goldsmith’s studio) I took the phone call for Stephen King’s IT in the office of our shop in an industrial complex in Pacoima.
The project was part electronic score and part orchestral. I lived in Laurel Canyon at the time, not far from friend and fellow composer Ray Colcord who I asked to realize the electronic part of the score. I would write in the morning and in the late afternoon drive to Ray’s studio with sketches for the electronic cues and listen to what he had “synthistrated” that day. This, plus writing the orchestral cues, went on for five weeks while we produced 110 minutes of music. Four recording sessions, each of diminishing size, with the orchestra and a day of mixing.
The director and one of the producers were working on another film in Tahiti while another producer and I did a temp-dub of the movie back in LA. We sent the temp dub to them and the first comments from Tahiti were that they didn’t like the main title music at all. As a matter of fact, the director never did like the score. The producer here convinced them that everyone here loved the main title and it shouldn’t be changed. It was a whirl wind of post production and, quite frankly, the next memory I have is that of hearing my name announced at the Emmy Awards. My wife remembers it as my bolting out of the chair to accept the award as if scared they might change their minds.
ND: Besides being a great musician and composer, what else do you think contributed to your success as a film composer?
RB: Thank you but... I’m not sure “great musician and composer” applies to me. Nor do I think it applies to being successful as a film composer. There are great musicians and composers in our midst. Bruce Broughton is a fine example of a highly skilled, highly talented composer who also happens to be a film composer. I, like many of my colleagues, possess some skills — dramatic, musical and interpersonal — which, when coupled with fortunate circumstances, create a career. My relationship with producers who became close personal friends, afforded me not only continued work (as long as I didn’t blow it) but proximity to preproduction meetings, the dub, casual conversations about production problems, etc., which gave me valuable insights into the film making process. That understanding of how and why decisions are made yielded a knowledge base and a “team player” persona which served me very well.
ND: What has been your most memorable experience?
RB: I’m guessing you would like it to be a musical one. In fact, it has been the acknowledgement of successful composers who are former students, ASCAP workshop participants and readers of my book (The Emerging Film Composer: An Introduction to the People, Problems and Psychology of the Film Music Business) which mean the most to me. A close second is any time I have a chance to work with incredible studio musicians. They are much more a part of a composer’s success than anyone knows. If a composer is the ‘best’ bass player or violinist on a recording, you have a problem.
ND: What has changed in the film scoring industry as a whole since you started?
RB: There were no courses in composing for film and media when I became interested. If you were interested in writing music you worked as an arranger, a conductor/ musical director or player while trying to land a job as a TV or film composer. This meant that you were force-fed a vocabulary of various kinds of music, all of which became your musical vocabulary. In addition, if you wanted to hear something you had written, you had to assemble a group of musicians to play it.
These two things are significant differences in the education of aspiring and emerging film composers today. The student today is starting early to study film music. Analysis of film scores is easier than ever. “Film music” is not a kind of music. Jazz, tango, concert, klezmer, these are kinds of music. If we start scoring films with “film music” it creates a kind of musical incest, an inbreeding which will eventually erode the substance and importance of our profession.
ND: Where do you see the future of the film scoring industry going?
RB: Your guess, unfortunately, is as good as mine. The factors involved are not just the obvious ones such as how music’s job in film has changed over the years. It is also going to be influenced by the large number of aspiring composers we are graduating every year. By temp tracks, “used”music, from other films guiding a composer who is working on a very supposedly “original, cutting-edge” project. And finally, composers raised on a diet of film music.
We can only watch and see.
ND: For other aspiring film composers, what are some essential skills to have to work in the film business?
RB: First is merely the realization that film composers are in the film business NOT the music business. Know about the director’s job, the producer’s job, the line producer’s job, the show runner, etc. Learn about pre-production and production phases as well as post-production (read The Working Film Director by Charles Wilkinson). Finally, and maybe most importantly, use your brain more than you samples or your gear. Everyone has the same samples and gear. Only you have your brain!
ND: What are you working on now?
RB: I am creating a series of video tutorials (The Richard Bellis Video Series) about many aspects of being a film composer. Two are available currently on my website, richardbellis.com and a third will be ready in November. They are available with subtitles in Spanish, German and Chinese.
Additionally, I serve on the board of directors of ASCAP and host the ASCAP Television and Film Scoring Workshop with Richard Bellis and have been traveling in Europe giving masterclasses.
Thank you to Richard Bellis for this outstanding Q&A and Happy Halloween everyone!
Film | Music
About the Author