Oooh Fuuudge!! ScoreKeeper Chats With Paul Zaza, Composer of A CHRISTMAS STORY!!
Published at: Dec. 23, 2009, 3:25 p.m. CST by scorekeeper
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here spreading peace and goodwill toward geeks with an interview so triple-dog-daringly cool, you'll shoot your eye out!
A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) is one of my all-time favorite movies. It remains one of the very few films that I can watch anytime, anywhere, from any point within the movie for as long as I have the time to fill. I can watch the entire movie and then start it right back up and watch it again. At my house, the tradition of watching A CHRISTMAS STORY has become as ubiquitous as decorating the tree, putting lights on the house, or hanging stockings with care.
That said, this movie is not to be dismissed as simply a hackneyed habit conveniently attached to a major holiday. The more I watch A CHRISTMAS STORY, the more entranced I am by its brilliance. Much of the film's success should be credited to Jean Shepherd whose erudite voice narrates the film which is based on his writings. Another heap of praise should be showered upon the director, Bob Clark, who managed to craft a film so universal and timeless that it transcends the screen. Then who could forget Ralphie, impeccably realized by Peter Billingsley, flanked by equally stellar performances by Melinda Dillon (Mrs. Parker) and Darren McGavin (The Old Man). Finally, one can not properly accolade this film without tipping their cap to the composer, Paul Zaza and his music editor Carl Zittrer, who are responsible for crafting the music.
The score to A CHRISTMAS STORY is simple. It weaves familiar carols within a fabric of youthful comedic wit to create a tapestry so colorful and comforting you're heartbroken to part with it. Having seen this movie as many times as I have, these pieces have engrained themselves into my psyche. Whenever I internalize "Deck the Halls" or "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," I'm forever hearing Zaza's arrangements as heard in A CHRISTMAS STORY.
For more than twenty-five years the score itself was only listenable within the context of the film. Not so anymore. Last month, TCM Music and Rhino Movie Music released Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer's wonderful score to A CHRISTMAS STORY on CD for the very first time. I was thrilled to finally add this title to my soundtrack collection! Merry Christmas to me!
Earlier this year, I tracked Paul down in anticipation of brining you an interview with him once Christmas time rolled around. A couple of weeks ago I was honored to chat with Paul about his involvement helping create this classic film. As my personal Christmas gift to Ain't It Cool readers, I present to you my interview with composer Paul Zaza, composer of A CHRISTMAS STORY. It doesn't have a compass in the stock or a thing which tells time but I'm sure you'll enjoy it anyway.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
ScoreKeeper: Paul, it's great to talk with you. I have been looking forward to this since I first got in touch with you earlier this year. I couldn't wait until Christmas rolled around again so we could talk about A CHRISTMAS STORY. I know it's been twenty-six years since the film came out but hopefully I can stir up some memories.
I want to go back to the beginning and talk about how you got involved with this film. I know you had a professional relationship with Bob Clark prior to A CHRISTMAS STORY, correct?
Paul Zaza: Yes, I had already done a movie called PORKY’S (1982) with him and a lot of people – say what you like – they criticized PORKY’S and said it was juvenile and porno and all the rest…of course it was, but it was an incredible commercial success to the point where the thing made like 200 million dollars. Back then that was pretty stellar.
SK: I think it’s great! I’m a child of the 80’s where PORKY’S was standard viewing. I was introduced to the birds and the bees with that film.
PZ: PORKY’S was just a good time and it was provocative and evocative and all of that stuff. I did it with Bob and I gave him the score that he wanted, which as a composer is your primary job – to give the director what he wants – not necessarily what’s best for him, but what he wants. That’s how they gauge your success.
He got the score he wanted and it turned out to be a big hit. Bob was the kind of guy who had loyalties. If you were in his camp then you were with him for life and I definitely was. Unfortunately his life ended tragically which you probably know.
SK: Yes, very sad.
PZ: We went on to do around two dozen films after PORKY'S and of course, the next one in line was A CHRISTMAS STORY which totally came out of nowhere. It was the other end of the spectrum from PORKY’S. You’re talking about a kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas, which is totally different subject matter.
The very first movie I ever did for Bob was called MURDER BY DECREE (1979) and it was a Sherlock Holmes movie. It was a very classy and well directed piece which was a complete departure from PORKY'S and A CHRISTMAS STORY.
You've got a guy who is all over the place here. That was the most difficult part. What he would ask for wasn’t what he necessarily wanted all of the time. He just had a funny way of asking for it. I learned after three movies what he wanted when he asked for something.
A CHRISTMAS STORY was the third film that I had done for Bob and it was done with a shoestring budget in a hurry. It was also done at a time when MGM was being taken over and they didn’t necessarily want this movie. For people who green-lighted the movie…When they got replaced, the new guard that came in said, “Why was this okayed? We don’t really want this movie to be made,” but they had to honor the contract so their attitude was to just put the minimum in. Honor the agreement and just bury it. They didn’t even promote it. It came out on a Friday and closed on a Sunday and they buried it.
SK: And it wasn’t even out at Christmas time. It came out before Thanksgiving, correct?
PZ: That’s right. Of course people weren’t in the mood. It got no promotion. When it came into the theaters it was like this little nothing event about a kid who wants a BB gun and the attitude was “Who cares?” It was very bad business.
SK: You mentioned Bob got what he wanted with this score. Does that mean that you might have had other ideas that you weren’t able to do?
PZ: Absolutely! If you listen to the score – I don’t know how much you have analyzed it – but there’s a strong "Grand Canyon Suite” component to it. It’s an American classic and not a lot of people know it. It's one of the classic American pieces of music. It was written in either the thirties or forties [note: composed by Ferde Grofé from 1929 to 1931]. It was a tribute to the Grand Canyon and all it's awesomeness. It first depicted this little prairie/open range kind of thing.
Bob latched onto this with the kid who had fantasies about having his Red Ryder BB gun and going out and shooting bad guys. He said, “We have got to use this great American piece." I thought it would be really tough figuring out how to integrate that into a custom score because the "Grand Canyon Suite" is much bigger than this movie really needs. It's was just a little movie. It takes place inside a house for God's sake! We are not outside looking at mountains and canyons.
So we had to adapt the "Grand Canyon Suite" into a smaller version and make it more honest and much more fitting with little boy Ralphie. So that was a bit of a challenge.
One thing about Bob, when he had that in his head, you couldn’t take him away from it. That’s what it had to be! Had I been left to do it alone, I might have gone in different directions, but that’s all in the past. It is what it is. This is what he wanted and this was the challenge…to get him the “Grand Canyon Suite” adapted to Hammond, Indiana, back in 1943 when this little movie took place.
So we did that and obviously it worked because a lot of people really like the music.
SK: I’m definitely one of them. I have lived with this film almost my whole life. It’s such a major part of my family's Christmas traditions.
PZ: That’s exactly what happens and don’t forget, you’ve had the benefit of twenty-seven years every Christmas. We are here now again in December. They play that damn thing around the clock on Turner (TBS). Looks, we found the conventions they had down in Cleveland where somebody actually bought the house the movie was shot in and they turned it into a museum.
SK: Wow! Let's go.
PZ: We went to it last year for the 25th anniversary of the movie. There are people who drive to Cleveland from places like Oklahoma to see that house and to go to the convention and buy leg lamps and little pink bunny suits and all of that shit that's in the movie. They have now found a way to market all this crap and they are all for sale in…they call it the Christmas Story Museum. We had the CD in there for sale and we sold a ton of them. We were there autographing copies and pumping the thing. Apparently it happens every year. It’s going to happen again this year. I couldn’t believe that. These people are nuts! They know every single line of dialogue in that movie by heart!
SK: I can believe it.
PZ: This is true! I swear to God, one woman had earrings that were little leg lamps.
SK: Of course! Why would that be surprising?
PZ: She’s wearing little leg lamp earrings!
SK: So are you saying that you don’t have a leg lamp in your home?
PZ: No, I don’t have one. I went for breakfast the other day at this place in Florida and they had a leg lamp. The line that Jean Shepard wrote, the “double-dog-dare you” and “triple-dog-dare…” There’s now a wine called “Triple Dog Dare Wine,” and I’m hearing “You’ll shoot your eye out…” all over the place.
All the lines in the movie are used in Sprint telephone commercials. It’s amazing how this stupid little movie has become a part of American folklore. Whether you saw the movie or not, you are probably going to recognize one of the lines from the movie. It’s one of these things that it was a bomb and it died when it came out, but for some reason after 27 years, it just gathered some momentum all by itself.
SK: Let me ask you this…Because you worked on the film, you have an intimate relationship with it that not everybody else has. Why do you think this “stupid little movie” has gained so much momentum and has a following like it does?
PZ: Good question, very good question. Why? Because it’s honest. You’re a movie buff so you know how movies can lead the audience and insult the audience. They can sometimes take you down places and then you find out that you have been had. They are manipulating you, right?
This movie doesn’t do that. This movie is honest. Every single frame of it is honest. From the old man swearing at the furnace to the kid who knocks the nuts off when he changes the tire and he says the F-word, there’s an honesty to this that was as real forty or fifty years ago and it is still real today. Let me ask you something, you’re a movie fan. You probably watch this movie every Christmas, right?
SK: At least three or four times.
PZ: You still like to watch it, don’t you?
SK: I do, in fact you are making me want to watch it again. I might watch it tomorrow night.
PZ: Do you watch BATMAN every year or SUPERMAN?
PZ: Okay, how many times can you watch SUPERMAN?
SK: The original? I could watch that almost any time. There are a handful of movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. I am a movie buff so there are probably a lot of them I could say that about.
PZ: The average guy has seen THE DARK KNIGHT four or five times. He loves the Joker and he loves all of that stuff but is he going to watch it every year for the rest of his life?
SK: I don’t know. I know some people who will.
PZ: Maybe I’m not even making a good point, but to me, when you sit back with your eggnog and you watch this movie, it brings in the whole spirit of Christmas right into the home. It ties it all together and actually makes a lot of sense. It's something everybody in the family can sit there and watch and get a chuckle out of. Whether you're a kid or a grandparent or whatever, it just has the magic that Bob managed to capture and put on the screen. I think it will live on like WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) and all of those classics. They will live forever, because they are what we call evergreens, right?
PZ: That’s what this has going for it and I’m very lucky to be a part of what I call a major piece of American folklore. There aren’t too many like that really. If you think about it, how many movies are out there like THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) that become classics?
SK: You're exactly right. I would put A CHRISTMAS STORY up against all of those films. I see the success of this film broken up into two parts. The first is Bob Clark managed to take Jean Shepherd's writings and create something that you call an "evergreen. Even though it takes place in the early forties, everybody throughout any decade can relate to everything going on in this movie.
PZ: That’s right.
SK: That’s one of the more brilliant aspects of it. This is not a period piece that is foreign to those outside of the period.
The second aspect to the success of this film is tradition. This film has become a holiday tradition for so many families. It's like putting up your Christmas tree. It just won't feel like Christmas unless you put up your tree and watch A CHRISTMAS STORY.
PZ: Yeah, because you actually anticipate all of the silliness right up until the end when they go to the Chinese restaurant for dinner and he cuts the duck’s head off. How old are you again?”
SK: I’m in my thirties.
PZ: You’re a young guy. Okay, we used to actually go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve when I was a kid because for some reason the turkey got screwed up and we couldn’t eat at home. Of course, every Chinese restaurant in the world is open on Christmas Eve so that was where you went. When the whole movie was over, Bob managed to still throw in that little thing where you go to the Chinese restaurant and he hacks the duck's head off. Everybody gets a kick out of that because they relate to the Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve.
It’s a lot of silliness, but I don’t know…It tugs at the heartstrings. I have a kid who is nineteen years old and she doesn’t know all the Little Orphan Annie radio stuff. She grew up with iPods and rock videos. She doesn’t know anything about people sitting around listening to a radio. Yet, she can relate to that scene when those two kids are sitting there trying to see if they won the Ovaltine contest. She relates to it but she’s doesn’t know anything about the history of the kids listening to the radio. Somehow the movie, even though it’s completely dated, still relates to people’s instincts.
SK: Exactly! That’s the brilliance of it. I find myself in awe every year. Especially Christmas Eve when Turner runs the marathon. I will watch it until it ends and when it starts right back up again, I find myself watching it again.
PZ: You can take any movie and analyze the shit out of it. Movies have their strong points and their weak points. You reach a point in the movie where you are thinking, “Oh, it’s kind of slowing down but I’m going to get through it,” but then it gets back to the good parts, right?
PZ: One of the critics – I can’t remember who it was – it might have been Siskel or Ebert or one of those guys, I don’t remember, but they said that “A CHRISTMAS STORY has absolutely no weak points in it at all. There’s not one point in that movie where it slows down.”
SK: I would totally agree.
PZ: I can’t think of a place where it slows down where you find yourself saying, “Okay, come on. Let’s get on with it! Go on to the next one…let’s get to the part where he…” I can’t think of one point where that happens.
SK: I think that’s why it works as a marathon movie. There are a lot of movies I absolutely love, but I couldn’t sit there all day long and have it on a loop inside my house on Christmas Eve.
PZ: Exactly. I can’t think of one place where it’s weak. The thing that you should know is that there was a lot more to A CHRISTMAS STORY than what you see. There was a whole sequence shot called, "Ming the Magnificent," where he was going to go in and fight the evil Ming, you know, the evil emperor. It was a whole ten minute scene where he fantasizes about it. That whole scene was cut. I scored it and it took me days to score this. They ended up chopping it.
There was another scene that was cut out that was this Flash Gordon sequence. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building these sets with incredibly huge monsters and tentacles sticking out. We scored that as well. That got cut.
There was a lot more of this movie that never made it to the final cut. I still have the footage that was cut out from the old moviolas that we used to have to work with. I kept the footage. Some of it was brilliant. I said to Bob, “This is an incredible scene, why the hell is it cut out?” He said, “We just had too much story here. We were storied out. We had to cut it out and put this thing into a ninety-eight minute format, otherwise it just went on and on and on.”
SK: When you see the film today, does it still hurt to realize all of that work had been cut?
PZ: No, because it was masterfully cut to the point where, if you look at the movie, all the movie is really is just one vignette sewn together to the next one. What we used to rake a lot of these were these flash scenes where the kids are running from the house to school and the school to the playground and then they are running from the playground to Scut Farcus where he beats up on them. Those little running sequences were actually stuck in to join the movie together. They were links, because the movie was just little tiny scenes that Ralphie was encountering in his daily life from one day to the next There’s really no plot to the movie other than this kids obsession with getting this gun.
PZ: So getting rid of the Flash Gordon sequence, while a magnificent sequence, wasn’t all that difficult to do. It was like a modular effect. Nobody even knows that it was done except me and of course the editors and everyone who worked on the movie. It’s too bad because a lot of it was pretty brilliant stuff. Bob was fighting MGM and they didn’t want to do the movie in the first place and they were saying it was too long, “You have to cut it back. It’s not working. Blah blah blah….” The studios know everything and they certainly controlled the shots.
SK: Is this film part of your Christmas traditions? Do you continue to watch it?
PZ: Oh absolutely! We get together and watch it. You can’t avoid it, it’s on TV so much…
Last year we released a tribute CD because it had been one year since our good friend Bob had been tragically killed in that car accident. The next thing we know we heard from Warner Bros. and said, "What's this?" We said, "We think twenty-five years is long enough. People should be able to buy this at a store and you guys haven't done anything about it. So we did!" After a year of bickering and arguing and fighting with them, they have actually released the thing. It's out on Rhino Records. I think it’s the forth-largest selling Christmas CD in America right now.
SK: That’s great! Congratulations. I got one of those copies from you last year. I was thrilled to finally own this music. I thought it was especially welcome that they officially released it this year.
PZ: It's got Ralphie on it! I don't think it's going to break any sales records but it's something that people who are fans should have.
SK: You're creative partner is Carl Zittrer. Do you collaborate on music together or divvy up the work? How does that professional relationship work?
PZ: Carl does the editing. He's the music editor. In the past, the music editor in Hollywood was a really big part of the project. The composer wrote the melodies and conducted the musicians. It's not like today where it's all done on a sampler. We actually had to write it all out and have it copied and stand there in front of thirty-five or forty musicians and physically play the cues.
These cues were all written and put together and recorded on analog tape and then the tape was transferred to 35 mag. Then it was edited and locked up against the film. In a Bob Clark film, the film was constantly changing, because every time Bob looked at the cut he would change it, so Carl’s role was to take these cues that I had written and recorded and cut them and make them fit to adapt to the ever changing cut that Bob was working on at the time. He’s a brilliant music editor! We ended up doing a deal where it was like “So much of this score has been edited that you are as much a part of the composer’s credit that I am,” so we shared the credit. That’s the way it worked; I wrote the stuff and conducted it, he took it and cut it.
SK: That’s interesting. I’ve seen your names side by side so many times and I never knew that that was the collaborative relationship that you had.
PZ: It's interesting because Bob and Carl went to high school together. If Bob were alive, he would be the same age as Carl and they grew up in southeast Florida and went to high school together and became friends. That’s how I met Bob was through Carl. I was up in Canada. He would never have found me up there. Carl has told me many stories about how Bob would try to make these little movies in high school and try and get them going. I guess he kept at it to the point where he became successful. He was a major filmmaker.
SK: Was there a method or a direction when to use a Christmas tune and when not?
PZ: No, not really. You knew that when they are going out to buy a Christmas tree you have got to have “Jingle Bells” playing in the car or in the shop where he goes to buy the Christmas tree, you have got to have “Jingle Bells” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It’s more source music. It's stuff coming from the radio or the car, coming from the jukebox in the place or whatever. Those things were just smattered all over the movie just to create the ambience of the fact that it is Christmas.
I recorded a half a dozen Christmas carols. Half of them didn’t even make it into the film like “Silent Night” and “Good King Wenceslas.”
SK: Some of the arrangements have become classic versions of the tunes in my own stream of consciousness. For example, at the very end when the Mom and Old Man are staring out the window looking at the snow fall on Christmas night, that version of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" crystallizes the holiday spirit for me instantly.
PZ: That was actually done intentionally. I didn’t just throw that on there. If you look at the very beginning of the film, there’s this little music box that plays “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” like a typical little jewelry box/music box thing. I actually found a music box in a pawnshop somewhere and the difficulty of that was I had to find a way to record it. Those things are a bitch to record! If you just stick it in front of a mike, do you know what you get? You get all the warring of the motor. I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of all the shit that I didn’t want and just get the music. Today of course, you could just sample it and that would be beautiful, but we didn’t have samplers back then, so you know what I did? I took what looked like a Christmas tree with a base on it and you twisted the tree and wound it up so that the springs got nice and tight. Then as it unwound it would play “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I took the thing and I taped it to the soundboard of my grand piano and then I put a brick on the sustain pedal.
PZ: The sustain pedal stayed down and allowed the resonance of the sound board and the strings of the piano to resonate every tone of the music box. Then when I put a mike on the soundboard, we got all of the beauty of the music box and none of the ugly motor sounds.
SK: That’s awesome. What a great little audio tip.
PZ: It was the only thing I could think of. I could not figure out how to record this damn thing. There were no instructions, you know.
Then I figured, “Okay, the stupid music box is playing ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas' in the key of C.” I had to transition out of that with a big string glissando into a fully orchestrated version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the same tempo.
This is where Carl’s editing came in. He would edit it so that it just has the phrase of, “We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year,” and the big string run up would come up and you would have in full glory an orchestral version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in exactly the same key. It was like this little music box was the intro to the big orchestral version. That's what starts the movie and Jean Shepherd says, “Oh Christmas, glorious Christmas… blah blah blah.”
There was a little bit of dicking around to get this music box in sync with the orchestra, but we did it.
SK: It sounds so fluid you would think it was easy.
PZ: I could tell you it wasn’t easy.
SK: That’s awesome! That’s a cool little audio tip, too. Personally I don’t like to rely on samples all of the time even though they are there. If I can record something for real that's always preferred. A tip like that would still come in handy today, so that’s pretty cool.
PZ: Yeah if you ever have a reason, use it.
SK: When you watch the film is there a particular moment where you feel the most pride? A scene that you thought you really nailed?
PZ: Nope, I think the whole thing…All in all, the whole thing really plays out. If you look at the big picture the whole thing works well from beginning to end.
SK: What keeps you busy these days?
PZ: Well, I’m working on a couple of smaller things. To be honest with you I have turned down some things. I’m finding I’m being more selective about what I do now because there’s just so much crap being done. I don’t really want to be aligned with anything that’s awful. I turned down something recently that was really awful. I saw it and said, "No matter how much money, I can't put my name on this thing, It's so bad!" It’s not like they even have any budgets for these things. These films are shot and they are scoring them for next to nothing. They are getting these kids to do the music on their Mac computers at home and they are giving it away basically.
SK: Yeah, that’s the same obstacles I face everyday. It’s not easy, but I’m surviving.
Well Paul, it was an absolute pleasure talking with you today. I hope you have yourself a merry little Christmas.
PZ: Thank you. You too!
SK: Now I'm going to go watch A CHRISTMAS STORY.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to thank Paul Zaza for taking the time to talk with me. I'd also like to thank Mike McCutchen for his help putting this interview together.
The music from A CHRISTMAS STORY is available on Rhino Records and also as a digital download on iTunes.
To visit the official web site of Paul Zaza, click HERE.