Mark Knopfler’s score for “The Princess Bride,” to quote the film, was only mostly dead.
On Saturday, the L.A. Philharmonic will perform it live to picture at the Hollywood Bowl — and they really do mean live. The original 1987 score was recorded almost entirely using a Synclavier sampling machine, with the exception of some nylon guitar solos by Knopfler. Under veteran conductor David Newman, the music will — like Cary Elwes’ Westley — finally come back from the dead.
Rob Reiner’s swashbuckling, romantic, meta-comedic film has a legion of fans — including the many celebrities who reenacted it at home during the pandemic — but depending on who you ask, Knopfler’s artificial-sounding score is either its beautiful beating heart… or a dated ear-sore. Composer Bear McCreary (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) recently said: “It remains on my list of good scores that don’t age well.”
But for Reiner, the way the score sounds is a huge part of its charm in the film, although he did originally intend to have a real orchestra. “I knew I wanted a classical-type, old-fashioned, ’30s kind of score,” says the director, who will introduce the film on Saturday, “that kind of swashbuckling score.” But ultimately Knopfler “wasn’t used to or comfortable with that. He felt like, ‘I need to be able to feel my way along.’ Somebody who’s going to work with the London Philharmonic or hire an orchestra in the States, you want to be buttoned-down like crazy. This was a way that Mark could go in and experiment, and feel comfortable. So I went with him. And at first I thought: ‘Oh no, Synclavier — I don’t know if that’s going to work.’ But it works.”
Reiner was making all manner of off-center choices in adapting William Goldman’s 1973 novel, a self-conscious, winking take on fairy tales. The film continually toggles between the fairy story and a sly Peter Falk narrating it and making quippy exchanges with his bedridden grandson (Fred Savage). It features funnyman Christopher Guest in a deadly serious performance as a six-fingered murderer, the human cartoon Wallace Shawn as a low-rent crime boss, and pro wrestler André the Giant as an actual giant.
There’s an endearingly lo-fi quality to many of the settings and effects — the Rodents of Unusual Size that Westley wrestles are clearly small humans in giant rat suits — and Reiner threads the needle between the silly and the utterly sincere. Much to the grandson’s (initial) chagrin, “The Princess Bride” is fundamentally a story about true love between farmhand-turned-pirate Westley and Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright). Finding the right tone was critical to making it all work, and one of the greatest contributors to a film’s tone is its score.
It was Reiner’s friend, Bobby Colomby — a record producer and one-time drummer with Blood, Sweat & Tears — who recommended Knopfler. The English singer-songwriter had recently dipped his toe into film scoring with “Local Hero” (1983) and “Cal” (1984). “I had heard his score on ‘Local Hero,’” says Reiner, “and I thought that was really interesting. And certainly he captured the film. It wasn’t like he was trying to impose Dire Straits-type riffs on it, you know; he had his own feel for it. And then Bobby told me, ‘No, this guy is really good. He’s really smart, and he really knows how to do this.’”
Knopfler (who wasn’t available for an interview) purchased a Synclavier in the early 1980s without knowing how to use it. Enter Guy Fletcher, a tech-minded keyboardist who helped Knopfler execute and perform his first two film scores, and was then invited to join Dire Straits for the 1985 album “Brothers in Arms” — beginning a lifelong friendship and collaboration.
The Synclavier, a “clunky” symphony-in-a-box that used samples of real orchestral instruments, became a key flavor to the Dire Straits sound, despite the fact that it crashed every day at 4 p.m. without fail. The band even took it on the road. “We must have been mad, but we did,” says Fletcher, recalling one time when Yugoslav authorities impounded the machine because it contained American missile technology.
Using it for film “wasn’t dissimilar to the way that scores are written these days, except that the samples were very basic,” says Fletcher. He additionally imported the sample library from E-Mu’s comparable machine, the Emulator, in order to “bolster the orchestral palette. They were basic sounds, but certainly one of the reasons the score works for me is because of its weirdness, and its sort of grunge factor in terms of the quality of the samples.”
When Reiner asked Knopfler to score “The Princess Bride,” Knopfler said he would do it on one condition: Reiner had to include the fake Navy cap worn by his character from “This is Spinal Tap” somewhere in the film. The director obliged, and Marty DiBergi’s black “USS OORAL SEA OV-4B” hat can be seen hanging from a lamp behind Savage’s bed. Reiner recounted that story in the original soundtrack liner notes, followed by Knopfler drily writing: “I was only kidding about the hat.”
“Well, I didn’t doubt him at the time,” Reiner says today, laughing. “He may have been kidding, but I took him seriously!”
In his memoir (“As You Wish”), Cary Elwes wrote that when he learned Knopfler was going to score the film during production, he started listening to “Brothers in Arms” each night to unwind. (“That’s funny,” the director says. “I didn’t know that.”) It was Knopfler’s prior band work that gave Reiner confidence that he could tackle the unique vibe of this fractured fairy tale.
“It is one of the oddest mixes,” says Reiner. “It has swashbuckling and romance and satire. It has all of these elements mixed together. When I hear Knopfler doing ‘I want my MTV,’ I know he has a sensibility of satire, of making fun of things. I know he has that in him. So then he comes and plays things, and then you sense when it’s there. You say, ‘Ooh, that’s too close to the bone,’ or ‘We’re making too much fun here.’ It’s like walking a line, and you know when you’ve crossed it, and you know when you’re still on it.”
The gorgeous love theme for this love story, although expressively performed by Knopfler’s guitar, was actually written by the American singer Willy DeVille. Knopfler was concurrently producing and playing on DeVille’s 1987 album, “Miracle,” and when he heard the song “Storybook Love” — with lyrics about a love story that took place “once upon a time” — he couldn’t believe how fitting it was.
“Mark called me up,” Reiner remembers. “He was in London at the time, and he said, “I just heard this song, you’ve got to hear it.’ He actually held the phone up to a speaker in London and he played the thing for me. I said, ‘Oh my God. It’s like written for the film.’ So we used that, and he took strains of that and incorporated it in the score.”
“Storybook Love,” which plays over the end credits, received the film’s lone Oscar nomination. (It lost to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing.”) The song’s gentle melody formed the emotional core of Knopfler’s score, while still allowing him to put his personal stamp — and some human warmth — on the soundtrack. “His guitar playing is completely distinctive,” says Reiner. “It’s very clear. There’s no fuzz to it. It’s almost like when you listen to Linda Ronstadt sing — there’s no tremolo, there’s no sliding up to notes that don’t need to be slid up to. It’s just clear as a bell. Mark plays that way.”
The very first thing Knopfler did was write his various themes — a heartbroken lament for when Buttercup swears she’ll never love again, an airy dance as she rides through the countryside. Knopfler, who is not classically trained, would then sit in a room at the former A&M Studios (now Henson Recording Studio) and react to the picture, coming up with harmonies, rhythms and “orchestration” for the Synclavier. The process, which was still evolving at the time, “basically entailed Mark having a million ideas in the space of five minutes,” says Fletcher, “and me having to catch up.”
Sometimes Knopfler accentuated the comedy and action; sword fights are scored almost like a silent film, with music hitting each parry and footstep. “It was a massive learning curve for us,” says Fletcher, who started dating his wife (of 33 years) while making the score in L.A. “We were definite newbies in that whole realm. But it was just fun to explore it, and to learn, really, how crap we were. But we kept on at it.”
“I think that, as well, the fact that we weren’t trained orchestrally probably lends itself a little bit to that feeling of slight naiveté in the score,” he adds. “It makes you smile a lot when you listen to it, and I think it’s because of that. There’s nothing really clever in the arrangement, even though we were trying to be clever — especially with things like the sword fight, which was hellish fun. And the Cliffs of Insanity as well. We just had such a laugh doing it. But we had no idea what we were doing, really.”
The best parts of the score are the more melodic, sentimental cues that demonstrate a real love for these characters. When Fezzik (André the Giant) and Iñigo (Mandy Patinkin) trade rhymes back and forth, annoying their boss (Shawn), Knopfler plays the moment with their “Friendship Theme” rather than something comic.
“You have to have a love for this, and love for the genre, at the same time you’re making fun,” says Reiner. “It’s like what I did with ‘Spinal Tap.’ All four of us [Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer], we were the first generation raised on rock ‘n’ roll. We love rock ‘n’ roll — it means so much to us. And yet you can still poke fun, but you do it in such a way that you’re not saying: ‘This is stupid!’ You’re still a little bit reverent and irreverent at the same time.”
“That’s what you have to do with a film like this,” he says. “It’s an oddball mixture, and it’s a hard mix to blend properly. You need the right kind of music that doesn’t tilt it too much one way or the other.”
The final soundtrack was a blend of Knopfler’s guitar and Fletcher’s Synclavier, mixed with lots of reverb and string-smearing to make it sound a little more cinematic. Mark Graham, John Williams’ go-to copyist, has done the orchestral arrangements for Saturday night’s performance, and the solos will be performed by local guitar hero George Doering.
Reiner and Fletcher both insist the original score doesn’t sound dated, at least not in a bad way. “You’re hearing more and more synthetic sounds as we move forward,” the director says. “So it doesn’t feel dated from that standpoint.” “Rob loved it, obviously,” says Fletcher, “because it was different — because it sounded like a fairy tale. It sounded sort of wrong somehow.”
So is it sacrilege to translate the score for a real, live orchestra?
“No, I don’t think it is sacrilege at all,” says Reiner. “Listen, I always prefer live players. I love when somebody can really sing and really play. It’s thrilling to see that.”