In the Fall of 2005, Composer/Conductor/Orchestrator Shirley Walker joined us as part of a panel that convened at Painted Saint Headquarters to discuss music, movies, and life in the business. Her credits include, among many, many, many others, Turbulence, True Lies, and all three chapters of the growing Final Destination franchise.
Joining the Emmy-award winner at the front of the room were two other film industry stand-outs: Director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile, The Majestic) and Composer Jan Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland, Unfaithful, Total Eclipse).
Each of the attendees had so much to say that it proved impossible to cram all their wisdom into just one piece, so we’ve separated pieces of each of their contributions into individual articles to give them each the spotlight they deserve.
“It’s up to you to find the truth in every opportunity that comes your way and to get the power from that… and to deliver your goods.”
The affable Shirley Walker began her evening reflecting on her upbringing in Northern California. The precocious product of a high school arts programs, she soloed with the San Francisco Orchestra while still a student. Although involved with the theatre, she didn’t have any special attachment to film while growing up. “I wasn’t a kid who went to the movies other than as a Saturday afternoon thing. There was the El Rey theatre in Walnut Creek and we’d go to the matinee where they played Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And we’d, you know, throw our gum wrappers off the balcony and spill our popcorn on the people below and our parents got a break from the kids for those couple of hours. It was an okay thing, but it wasn’t something that drew me like a magnet.”
But one day all of that would change. “In 1979 I’m all of sudden working for Zoetrope up in San Francisco with Francis Ford Coppola and Carrol Ballard. I mean, what an amazing thing! That was my film school and it was very Bay Area in nature. It was all about making those movies: Apocalypse and the Black Stallion. I mean, what a fabulous film school for me. One thing led to another and I did that rim of the funnel that finally began to focus and narrow down and here I am many years later. I met a man there who was from a second-generation Hollywood family, Dan Carlin, a Music Editor. He opened the doors here for me. And I didn’t think I really fully appreciated it at the time, to have someone who’s established helping me come in, introducing me to people and smoothing the way for me… it just made the beginnings for me, I think, easier than if I was coming here from scratch.”
Early in her career Shirley relished her anonymity and used it to watch and learn. “When I first came here nobody knew who I was and I could go anywhere. Musicians invited me to a John Williams score. All the great composers—I could go and watch them work because I was invisible. I didn’t have a career yet. And I found I was in a constant state of excitement because it was so inspiring. To get to see the mechanics of how they worked, instead of just the end result. Now all I get to see is the end result, because we’re all so competitive I can’t just invite myself on to another composers scoring session. You just don’t do that!”
Inspired and committed, Shirley spent her early years in Hollywood with her nose to the grindstone. “I used to start, and couldn’t stop when I was young—that was my normal workday. And you just can’t sustain that over the life of your career. Now it’s really important for me to stop, especially when I’m stuck. My husband taught me that over the years. Just leave it alone. It’ll be there when you come back. It’ll be there waiting for you, the problem, the puzzle. Stop. Go do something else. Go have fun, and then you come back and your mind will be in a different place, in a different dimension and then, then the problem won’t be so great. So I have to keep an eye on my project duration and I sort of map out how many minutes of music I need to average per writing day. Every day used to be a writing day, and now I have three writing days in a row and a day off, or four writing days in a row and a day off. Days for meetings. Days for orchestrating. I really mix it up a lot more so that I can feel really fresh about what I’m doing. The last concert commission that I did, I was ecstatic because I just came to the piano and I wrote until I didn’t have anything else to write and then I quit! I was like wow, this is really cool. When you’re out of ideas stop writing. Oh, what a concept. Movie schedules don’t often allow us that luxury. That’s just a fact.”
Shirley’s also learned to invest some of her energy outside her work. The vineyard her husband Don labored to create has become a sanctuary from the rigors of the business. “I’m enjoying learning farming. My responsibility in the vineyard is the gopher extermination. I have my license to use the lethal chemicals and poisons and I go out very early in the morning while you can still see the dirt, their mounds, that’s fresh enough that you can tell where they are. And the dogs (Foxy and Balboa) get to come down in the vineyard with me and be in their space. And it’s foggy and cold and chilly. There’s something incredibly satisfying for me about having a task that is that contained that doesn’t require any input or supervision from some other person that’s paying me money to do it, that I can just take my own time about it and evaluate it on my own and, it’s very self-contained and it’s very satisfying to have things like that you do. It helps me keep my sanity so that when my project pressures are at their most extreme, I can go we’re only making a movie. That’s the bottom line.”
Her vineyard isn’t just a refuge from the long hours required by her work; it’s also a balm for the inevitable failures of the creative life. She spoke candidly about a TV project where she couldn’t find a way to please her well-known employer. A couple of her frequent collaborators were brought in midstream on a television project and “we had this idea, and I was going to get to do the theme, and the producer had us in and we talked about music and he played me a very modern choral piece that was just, I could not get from what I was hearing him play—to the fact that this was a network television series. I was just like this, this? I couldn’t bridge that gap, so I just kept working on the ideas that my compadres were going for, because, basically the producer at that point was like the studio and we were the filmmakers. I’m loyal to my guys; they brought me in, I’m going to deliver the goods that they want to see. That’s what I’m going to put out there. And it didn’t work.”
“So they called and said, ‘You know, I’m sorry, but this is not working.’ And then they hired someone else who has gone on to have some great success and he did a thing that was so commercial and so pounding and so like Network Series, not an avant-garde, unique choir from some other planet. It was hard to feel like jeez, you had this opportunity and you screwed it up! How did you do that? How could you fail yourself like that? So I beat myself up for a little while and then of course, life goes on. And, and fortunately it has not diminished my desire to create music.”
Clearly none of the ups and downs of a creative career have dampened enjoyment for creating the material. “I love the overstatement of movies. And in the music part of movies I love how we get to just pour ourselves out in our work. I mean you cannot give enough to a film if you’re creating music for it. And sometimes it can be just the simplest of things, just the tiniest touch, the most quiet, delicate moment. And that’s just the most excruciating, powerful thing you can do for that moment. I love the extremes of the very quiet to the just overtly bombastic, every instrument in the orchestra blowing their brains out part of things.”
Walker is philosophical about the industry and it’s almost inevitable cyclical nature. “I always have to remind myself that I’m the only person that keeps my career going.
When I’m on an arc where I’m having a moment of success then that is a momentum magnet that pulls the other support people into my wake and they want to be part of what I’m doing so that the agents come, and the financial managers come and they can see, oh, there goes that shooting star. And they pull in behind you and you have this wonderful glory and that arc, you know it’s a circle that were in and, and then you have a fall and maybe you’re not so busy, and maybe the projects you’re working on are crappier than what you were doing before. And then you get to this point where, the glory part of it fades away and goes away and leaves to catch the next star, or perceived star, and those are the tough moments. That’s when I have to say, well, do I want to keep doing this? And I remind myself of the reasons why I want to keep doing it and then it’s up to me to bridge to that next little arc where I’m going up this way again. It’s like a loop da loop of some kind.
But there are ways to dampen the effects of the industry rollercoaster ride. Shirley openly acknowledged the need for a composer to form deep and lasting relationships with her collaborators. “I think composers are very dependent upon filmmakers for the success of the composer’s career. We have, we have to have somebody who believes so much in us as a creative being that they want to come back to the well over and over and over again. And there’s been quite a few talented music creators who sputtered and never could get going because there wasn’t a filmmaker that sought them out and believed that much in their work and said everything that I’m doing I want you to do it with me. I want you by my side. I like the sparks that fly when we’re together and working and creating together. And I like the head-butting and the pushing and shoving that we have to go through or it’s this way—you’re in sync the whole time and you hardly speak to each other. It’s just different for everybody,”
Walker spoke eloquently about the interdependence of the composer and director and of the challenges the director faces during the scoring process. “I think the score is probably the part of filmmaking that requires the most bravery on the part of the director, because you are working with this person who is expressing in another language and they go away and they do it without you. And when you’re working with your actors there’s this immediacy of molding the clay and working it and working it until, you’re both going, yeah this is hot; this is it; we’re done. And it isn’t that immediate with the composer, because the composer’s process is more complicated than that. They might bring you these themes that they’ve come up with and you’ll respond and connect with the theme, but you’re still going, “Uh, but how do we get from that… how does that fill the movie with music?” So, I think that’s when you have to be the most brave as a director.”
And while Shirley clearly cherishes the collaborative process, it’s also clear that she enjoys the artistic latitude that composing affords her. “In music we, we have a little buffer zone because what we create is in a different language. It isn’t words; it isn’t pictures. If we showed the piece of paper that had the notes on it and said, “Here’s the score for your movie,” you’d look at a piece of paper and it wouldn’t mean anything. So we can’t have somebody messing with our creativity while we’re writing because they can’t come and look at that piece of paper like they can look at a script that’s in progress and say, ‘Well, I like the word and better than the word the. Why aren’t there more ands in your screenplay?’ So, you know, we aren’t subject to that. We get to complete our thoughts more before the meddling begins.”
One never knows when something as ephemeral as a career defining moment is going to happen. With Shirley it materialized in 1991, and it still resonates in her career and her life today. As she expressed in her own words: “I was the first woman to stand on the Warner Brothers scoring stage on the podium in front of that orchestra. I was the first woman who had been allowed by a major studio, Warner Brothers, to have the complete responsibility for a film score. Other woman film and music creators had credits before me, but they had to work with an orchestrator, they weren’t allowed to stand on the podium, they had ghost writers that were doing half the cues for them, and they were only expected to contribute themes and so forth. On the second day of our scoring session there were people standing along the back wall where the machine room used to be. And I didn’t understand. Who are those people? They weren’t anybody I knew. And I finally asked Dan Carlin. I said, ‘Who are these people?’ And he said, ‘Shirley, they’ve come here to witness you doing this, because there’s this tremendous oral history and they want to be part of it. And they want to be here and they want to be able to say, ‘I was there the day that finally that glass barrier was broken and a woman got to have that responsibility.’ And it has been incredibly special and rewarding for me to see the women who have followed and walked through that door now and had great success as film composers.” And with Shirley still in her creative prime, we eagerly await each new triumph and each new success.
As she moves forward, she’ll have to do so without her oldest and dearest collaborator, her husband, Don. Between the evening of the panel and the writing of this piece, he succumbed to a long battle with cancer—a battle that he’d say he’d won. Over six years ago he was given only six months to live and during those years he thrived on developing his vineyard, and as he’d done all his life, cultivating deep and lasting friendships. His courage and his kindness will not be forgotten.
The final postscript to this piece came with a suddenness that took all of us at Painted Saint by surprise. In November of 2006, only a few months after losing her husband, Shirley Walker passed away from a hemorrhagic stroke.
Shirley loved the idea of mentorship and always gave unstintingly of her time. We feel honored to have known and worked with her. And while we hope never to lose sight of her legacy of honesty, humor, and friendship as we continue with our work… we will always miss her presence.
Director of Development/Assoc. Producer