The Killer Tomatoes Persevere

It’s not very visable on my resume nowadays, but like a cockroach, it seems to be surviving the decades, while others fall away. I was browsing in my local record store, and there it was: the newly released collector’s edition DVD of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” Seen it? Sure, you have. Al least, you may claim that you have seen it, but I bet you didn’t make it past the first 20 minutes. I’ll never forget sitting through my first screening of “Killer Tomatoes” at Glen Glen Sound in Hollywood. I’m watching it with the director, and the cut is pretty rough –no music (of course, that’s my job) no sound effects, dialogue out of sync. And about 20 minutes in, I realize this movie is not going to get any better. And it’s supposed to be a comedy. And I’m not laughing. Nowadays, I know that when you are sitting with your director watching his movie for the first time, it’s politically advantageous to laugh, or cry at the proper moments. But this was my very first film, and schmoozing your director was only one of the many facets of film scoring business I was ignorant about. There were plenty more. Like the fact that I had never been in a recording studio before, or if I had, never as a leader, conducting an orchestra. Or that I knew precious little about click tracks. Or how to record and mix a film score. Or, well, you get the idea.
Here’s something that will blow your mind: back in 1978, we did not have computers. We did not have VCR’s! So, I wrote the music to “Killer Tomatoes” (along with my friend, the excellent woodwind artist Paul Sundfor, who actually got us the gig) with a stopwatch, and pencil, and some timing notes from the director. Notes that looked something like this:

Close up of tomato :02 suspense
Woman sees tomato :04 suspense builds
Tomato gurgles menacingly :10 suspense builds again
Woman screams :12 suspense really builds
Tomato attacks :13.5 suspense builds, really a whole bunch this time.

It was amazing that music fit at all, considering I saw the film only one time before I started writing. So, for the paltry sum we were getting paid, (which I will not reveal!) here are the jobs Paul and I undertook:
Composing the underscore
Composing the musical songs (remember those?)
Orchestrating the score
Copying the parts for the musicians
Contracting the session (calling the musicians)

We were not even in the musician’s union, so we had no idea of how all that stuff was supposed to work. We knew some good wind players and rhythm section guys, but, our choice of string players was a bit… well, listen to the score. Basically, if your budget dictates that you must use a small string section (10 –12 players, I think we had) they had better be good string players, because in a group that small, there’s no place to hide! So, we had a few problems getting that string section to play the stuff in tune. Of course, the gate swung both ways, because I remember one guy in the section absolutely hated what we were doing and threw such a fit that the film’s producers banned him from the studio!

Of course, the movie came out and was an incredible bomb –was so horrible that that buzz came back around and it became something to see because it was so hilariously bad! The producers clearly realize this now, since the DVD set includes a lot of self-deprecating humor and comments. And I cannot listen to some of that score without cringing. But some of it holds up, both compositionally and performance wise. I got a valuable chance to get my feet wet and try my hand at a variety of musical styles. For a young composer, that’s invaluable. But generally speaking. I’d recommend honing your chops more anonymously so that your early efforts do not follow you throughout your career!