While Stewart Copeland may be best known as the guy playing percussion behind Sting in The Police, his music talents go far beyond the eighties supergroup. For his latest project he dug the 1925 silent film “Ben-Hur" out of cold storage at Warner Bros. so he could compose music to it. Copeland performs his score live with a huge orchestra while the movie screens behind the musicians.
The multi-instrumentalist recently performed the score live with the Pacific Symphony at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge in a KPCC In Person event that's part of the downSTAGE series.*
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Copeland at the event. The conversation began with Copeland explaining that the origin of this idea didn’t include the movie at all. He was hired to write the music for a "Ben-Hur" arena show with actors, horses, chariots...the works.
This mad German impresario decided to put the show on in arenas like a tractor pull. They filled the arena with dirt and they did the whole story. [The chariot races] and also the story, the love interest, the whole story. And it was acted in Latin and Aramaic and then in every different country in Europe they played in they would have a narrator of that language.
And when it opened in the O2 arena in London, they couldn’t get Sean Connery, so they got me... And the best part about that was I got to come out on a horse. And all the narration was pre-recorded, but the horse learns the show. And as I finish my opening monologue, as it were, he knows, that horse has now learned that that scrim is going to come down and 400 Ukrainians are going to come running out of that cage and set up Jerusalem in a twinkling -- and horses don’t like that.
What was the state of the print of this film and where did you find it and what work needed to be done?
Well, I need to do a shout out to Derek Power, my manager, who spent two years tracking [it] down. You know, we knew it was at Warner Bros. somewhere. Somewhere on the campus there there’s somebody who’s responsible for this movie. It took awhile to figure out which division that is and when we did, they actually kind of got on board. And I went up to a department at Universal where they handle these ancient classic films. And very rarely does anyone darken their door. And as soon as I walked in and started talking about it they really livened up. And when we got it all figured out they went down to the vault, pulled out this 90-year-old print. It took them days to defrost it. It was frozen -- cryogenics. And so they defrosted it and we telecined it. And the last time the old lady had been out of her cans was in the ‘60s when they shot it to video. The print that we got, it was very dirty and very scratchy and I had to clean a lot of frames... And I get no credit for that because the best thing is that you don’t see it.
What does the orchestration look like?
It’s a classic big ass orchestra. I think that’s what they call it in Italian. With a lot of percussion and trash cans. You can probably see the galvanized steel trash cans because I figured that modern snare drums were too anachronistic for Roman soldiers marching.
Is there a straight path from writing the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” in 1983 to this score?
Yes there is, it was the afternoon that Mr. Coppola turned around and he hired me to wrote music, which is exactly what he does, he gets people completely from outside the world... So I had to invent how you do a film score and he was very happy. And it was all very arty and cool and different from what his father would have written. But at the show and tell one day he turns around and says, “You know what, this is all very hip and everything, but I need strings. I need some strings here.” ...[And I said] “Yep, Francis I got that. You know I was thinking that, we need strings.” And so I hired some string players and it was in that session with the string players that I discovered the value of the music on the page... Tonight, you’re going to hear this orchestra. They played the score down once and we’re ready for the show tonight. And as I told the guys this afternoon: “Don’t try that with a rock band.”
If you missed the performance in Northridge, Copeland will perform his live score for “Ben-Hur” at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday night.
*DownSTAGE is a new ongoing KPCC series that travels to world class performance venues around Southern California for onstage conversations with performers before or after their shows.