By Moroder: An Interview with Giorgio Moroder

On the soundtrack work—including films by Paul Schrader, Alan Parker, Brian De Palma, and Fritz Lang—by the great musician.
Jordan Cronk

The reemergence of Giorgio Moroder to mainstream prominence over the last year has been one of the great unexpected gifts for music enthusiasts. In the wake of his seemingly inevitable collaboration with dance icons Daft Punk, Moroder has been collaborating, remixing, and working on new material of his own—not to mention DJing live for the first time in his storied career. In the process he has introduced himself to a new generation of fans, rightly receiving his due as an influential producer and sonic innovator. But what has yet to be widely recognized is the thumbprint Moroder has left on modern film composing. His iconic, Oscar-winning scores and songs for many of the biggest films of the late-1970s and ‘80s (Midnight Express, Top Gun) have long since entered the pantheon, but with the recent popularity of nostalgia-fueled films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Moroder’s influence on a very different medium feels poised to finally be acknowledged. Moroder was kind enough to sit down with me at his home in Los Angeles to discuss the collaborative process with directors Alan Parker, Paul Schrader and Brian De Palma, his work with the mainstream pop stars of the era, and his infamous 1984 reimagining of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

NOTEBOOK: So you’ve made this “comeback” over the last year or so, spurred on by your collaboration with Daft Punk on their most recent album Random Access Memories. And thus many new fans are now interested in your albums, productions, collaborations, etc. But what’s interesting is that this same generation of listeners who are just now discovering your music may be unaware of the other side of your artistic persona as a celebrated film composer. You’ve worked on dozens of films with a variety of important filmmakers, of course, but when did this interest in film first take root? Did you have an early love of cinema? 

GIORGIO MORODER: No. Well, early on I watched moves like—or well, probably less than everyone else. But Casablanca Records one day just asked me if I wanted to do a score for a movie. And that was a big surprise because I had never done anything like that.  So then I spoke with [director] Alan Parker, who wanted me to do the music for Midnight Express, and wanted a synthesized score. Basically, he liked the music I had done for [Donna Summer’s] “I Feel Love.” And there’s one scene in the movie where a guy escapes and he said, “Give me something in the style of ‘I Feel Love’”—something like a bass line that gives the feel of him escaping, to get some suspense. And he liked the piece I did. And the rest was very easy. 

Above: "Chase/Theme" from Midnight Express

NOTEBOOK: And that was the first score you worked on?

MORODER: Yeah, first score.

NOTEBOOK: Your music is already cinematic in way, evoking images which lend itself to film really well. And it seems like the Midnight Express score really set the template for a lot of scores to come in the 1980s. What was your process like with these filmmakers? Did you work directly with some or any of them? Or were you left to your own devices like on Midnight Express?

MORODER: I was quite lucky actually. Alan Parker was happy with that [escape] piece, and that was all he wanted. The rest was absolutely [up to me]. He didn’t hear any of it until he came to the mixing. I think we mixed the whole movie in a day. 

NOTEBOOK: So he knew the feel he wanted and just let you run with it? 

MORODER: Yeah, and I did all the rest. Then my second movie was American Gigolo, but on that I worked a lot with Paul Schrader. Again, though, he loved the first song, [Blondie’s] “Call Me,” which introduced the movie quite well. So that was relatively easy, but I worked much closer with him, not on a daily but on a weekly basis at least. 

Above: "Night Drive" from American Gigolo

NOTEBOOK: So the songs, like the Blondie song for example, or the David Bowie song from Cat People, were those written prior to your involvement with the films, or with soundtracks in mind? 

MORODER: Well, for American Gigolo, Jerry Bruckheimer and Paul Schrader told me “We need a song for the beginning. We need a song for when they go into the discotheque. Then we need a love song here…” So the song was absolutely part of the movie, but at the same time it was part of the soundtrack. And my advantage, if you consider more classical composers like John Williams, who I think is the best, but he doesn’t write songs. But I write songs and the scores. So that’s a little bit of an advantage for me. 

NOTEBOOK: A lot of your films have very famous standalone songs, a couple of which have even won awards. “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun, for example. But as far as working with certain directors, was there one with whom you had a particularly inspiring working relationship? 

Above: "Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun

MORODER: You know, I kind of liked everybody. Same with Brian De Palma: when I played him the first track [of Scarface], the opening, he loved it. So that was already 20% [of the music], and I cut it and it became “Tony’s Theme.” Even though that’s a 3-hour film it has relatively little music. So I had about four or five songs ready, but overall there’s not much music. I don’t even know if there is music at the end with all the shooting. 

Above: "Tony's Theme" from Scarface

NOTEBOOK: What’s funny is that Scarface has become so popular over the years, and so many younger viewers know the film but don’t know you composed the music, although subconsciously maybe still know the score, as it has become so iconic. 

MORODER: That’s quite interesting because when the movie first came out it didn’t do well at all. And then suddenly it came out on video, and the African American audience in particular started to love it, and even love it now.  It’s absolutely incredible. 

NOTEBOOK: Most of your other films were acclaimed at the time—or at least popular successes. Cat People, however, was one that wasn’t. What was that experience like, working with Paul Schrader again?

MORODER: Yeah, Cat people was…I’m not saying a problem, but a little…the movie was a little slow and not an easy movie. Some people didn’t like [the scenes with] the animal and the girl and the sex and all that. It was an interesting adventure.

NOTEBOOK: Was the Bowie collaboration set up prior to the film?

MORODER: I started probably two months before I had to deliver the final score. And I had this song and Paul and I decided that there’s only one guy whose image is perfect [for a film like this]. So I gave him the song and he wrote the lyrics and then we recorded it quickly in Switzerland. 

Above: "Irena's Theme" from Cat People

NOTEBOOK: One could argue that maybe you were an influence on Bowie when he began to work with electronics in the late 1970s, though you obviously leaned toward disco while he was experimenting with ambient music. 

MORODER: There was one afternoon when he was recording in Berlin and Brian Eno came in and played him “I Feel Love” and Bowie said, “This is the sound of the future!”, or something like that. Which I guess Bowie noticed—that this was now a fact, that this was now the new sound. So yeah, maybe my name was in his subconscious.   

NOTEBOOK: So were you basically experimenting with this music, or did you also have contemporary influences?

MORODER: I liked Kraftwerk. I liked a lot of Tangerine Dream—they had a lot of really good songs. They may have not influenced me but I was listening definitely to them. 

NOTEBOOK: I can definitely hear them in your film work. They have a similar kind of cinematic feel. 

MORODER: Yeah, they did one great [score] early on for that film with the truck…? 

NOTEBOOK: Sorcerer, yeah—and then Thief and Risky Business a little after that. One other big thing from this era that I wanted to get your thoughts on is your version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, from 1984. I know it’s something you don’t necessarily like to talk about but I think it’s particularly important topic for cinephiles because prior to that time Metropolis had only existed in severely truncated form. And your version was the first to incorporate a lot of what at the time was recently discovered footage. That was the first time anyone had seen what is considered a very vital piece of cinema history. 

MORODER:  Yeah, and the footage was very clean, because I had done a wet transfer and I had several pieces [of film] from different places including some from the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, some from the film museum in Berlin, etc.

NOTEBOOK: Who found the footage?

MORODER: There was one guy who has since died, his name is Enno Patalas. He was the czar of Metropolis, the guy who knew everything. He suggested MoCA. Because of him I then got some pieces from Australia and some pieces here in Los Angeles. 

NOTEBOOK: So you were basically trying to find the most available footage…

MORODER: I had to because some [places] had 40 minutes, some had 10 minutes… 

NOTEBOOK: So you were obviously a fan of the film from before?

MORODER: Yeah, but there was not one good copy. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you remember when you first saw the film?

MORODER: I don’t remember. It was 40 years ago. I forget. But when I decided I wanted to do a silent movie—that was a film that felt right, a film that I liked, it was an interesting movie. But I didn’t know it was so poorly…the quality was so poor. It was a disaster. But then I did my print and it was the best print. By far the best print.  

NOTEBOOK: The discovery and your cut became important to subsequent versions of the film—because now there’s an even longer version.

MORODER: Yeah, I think they found 15 or 20 more minutes in Argentina. But then they cleaned it digitally. I wanted to do that too, but we’re talking 30 years ago. 

NOTEBOOK: So your process would have been…

MORODER: Oh, I would have done it with a computer. 

NOTEBOOK: So at the time what did you do?

MORODER: Well, first of all I checked every—well, not every frame but every five/ten seconds: which footage had the better part, etc. And then I went to a place out here which did a frame by frame [restoration], which gives you much better quality. But I had an editing desk, where I spliced and did a lot of that work. I had that machine at home. So I got the whole movie together, with the best [elements] I could find. Then we did a good negative and a good positive.

NOTEBOOK: How long did the whole process take?

MORODER: That’s the problem. It took about two years just to find [the footage]. And the longer it took, well, I was still interested but it took a long time to get the contract, because we needed permission. It’s still very unclear: is it public domain?

NOTEBOOK: And that’s what kept it off the home video market for so long, right?

MORODER: Right. And so then I had to buy it from the German owners of the movie, which is the Murnau company. And it took a little too long I must say. But all in all it was a great project. 

NOTEBOOK: Why the decision to use music from the time period for the soundtrack? And also the decision behind the color tinting?

MORODER: What I liked was when [Carmine] Coppola did the music for Napoleon. That was I think six months before I did this. I liked the fact that he performed it live with a big orchestra, but that was one time at the big cinema in New York. But I wanted [Metropolis] to be released as a movie. 

NOTEBOOK: Was there any consideration for you to do something similar, performing the new soundtrack live?

MORODER: No, because I had five or six singers. To organize that would have been absolutely difficult. You know, to have an orchestra with 50 pieces you just put it together and do the arrangement. But to get Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar to sing would have been almost impossible. 

NOTEBOOK: Say what you will about the finished film, but a couple years ago when it played out here at Cinefamily, it sold out almost every night and brought in a bigger crowd than probably a screening of the original Metropolis would have. It’s obviously a completely different film, but it’s also its own important artifact. Since then, though: Your last score was for Leni Riefenstahl, correct?

MORODER: Yeah, but that’s not really a normal film. She did a documentary about underwater, something…

NOTEBOOK: Underwater Impressions.

MORODER: Yes, beautifully done. I mean, she was 78 or so when she filmed it. She was a filmmaker, she really was. But that was just background music for the movie. There was no other sound, or text—just music.

NOTEBOOK: Do you plan on doing any other film work? Do you want to?

MORODER: If I get a good script or a good movie, yeah. 

NOTEBOOK: I read somewhere that you turned down a film one time because you didn’t like the script. So that’s a consideration when looking at these projects? The quality of most of the films you’ve worked on is well regarded, so you’re obviously looking at the material and deciding based on multiple factors. I guess Alan Parker’s Fame didn’t look good on the page? 

MORODER: Oh, that was a big mistake for me. But again, that was Alan Parker and he gave me the script and I couldn’t imagine that this could make a good movie. That kind of a movie where you have three or four different stories, it’s difficult to imagine. A suspense movie [on the other hand], you know. And I was kind of busy with another big project at the time, so I passed on it. Which is a shame because it came out so well. The music was great.

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Girogio MoroderSoundtracksAlan ParkerFritz LangLeni RiefenstahlAudiospotlightInterviews
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