The earliest high profile film that Basil Poledouris would score was Conan the Barbarian, and so much of his style and ability as a composer would be evident from that one film: it gave him a vast, inspiring canvas, something big and mythic and lusty and bloody and sweaty, and musically he would nail its many moods.
But he had to write that music first.
This was daunting. He had this huge film, needing almost wall-to-wall music, for a producer (Dino DeLaurentiis) who is also a famous taskmaster. He couldn't let him down; he couldn't let his friend and director John Milius down; and, of course, he had to feed his wife and two young daughters. So he had seen the whole fim, he had his notes, and he would think of each scene and what it needed musically. And try not to panic.
One scene is the one known as "The Orgy." He'd watched it, and knew its technical details: what was happening on screen, the scene's length, where music should start and end, and now...he needed to tie it all together with melody and rhythm.
He got the underlying rhythm. But he couldn't get the melody.
He was home while composing this, sitting at his piano banging out the same heavy bass notes over and over. In later years, when he was rich, Basil built a special home studio that was soundproof, so he could compose at 3 a.m. and not wake up anybody, but at that time he was scratching out his living and, thus, lived in a less well-appointed place. So everyone else in the house heard Basil pounding out this musical fragment, including his oldest daughter, then-9-year-old Zoe, trying to do her homework. Eventually, she turned away from that work, pulled out her recorder (the starter flute so many of us played in grade school), and walked to her daddy's studio. She started playing a tune.
Outwardly, Basil kept playing the piano and perhaps mumbling things like "Yeah, that's nice, dear," the vague encouragement parents sometimes make if they're not entirely paying attention to their kid...but inwardly he was thinking, THAT'S IT! That's the tune!
Eventually he stopped playing the piano, said to Zoe something like "That was nice, honey, you're playing really well, now go do your homework like a good girl"...and once she was out of the room, he frantically wrote down her melody, and finished composing the piece around it.
Six weeks later, the score was finished, and the whole Poledouris family was in Rome for the recording sessions. Dozens of the best orchestral players in Italy were ready to play his music. His...though he had not yet told Zoe that it wasn't all his (as those of you who have the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack can see in the liner notes). Basil took the podium, and conducted first this cue, then that cue...then, as the orchestra prepared to play "The Orgy," Basil asked Zoe to join him at the podium. He told her to listen, that she would probably like what she was about to hear.
What she heard was her melody blasted out on brass (French horns, if I remember correctly, and we're talking a battery of French horns, something like two dozen, which is an enormous number and which makes a huge sound), weaving in and out and on top of her father's music.
The performance ended. Everyone held their silence for a few beats to ensure a clean recording. And then, beaming, Basil turned to his daughter and asked, "What do you think?"
Zoe said, "You didn't do it right."
I don't know how many of the people in that studio spoke English, but the body language spoke volumes to everyone: this big, stocky man getting critiqued by his tiny little 9-year-old blonde daughter. But she remembered that moment from weeks earlier, she remembered what she had played, and she told him that it went like this, and then she sounded out the tune. And yes, Basil had messed up some notes here and there in his rush to notate it. And yep, he corrected it on the fly and recorded it again and got it right.
I'm sure he'd been expecting "Oh, Daddy! You're the bestest daddy ever!!!" But as I've gathered from watching the many parents I know, some of the best moments of parenting are those when your children happily surprise you. Basil decided, "OK, she has her own thoughts, she has a mind of her own, this is a good thing..."
Zoe Poledouris is now a composer and singer in her own right. Her song "Into It" got submitted for Paul Verhoeven's film version of Starship Troopers (another thundering Basil work) with Verhoeven not knowing that it was written by his composer's daughter...and that led to her getting a cameo in that film's school dance scene (you see her singing a reworked David Bowie song). She and her dad co-composed the score to John Waters's Cecil B. DeMented in 2000; she scored and starred in the made-in-Portland rock flick Down and Out With the Dolls after that; and she continues playing rock. And before all that, she became (I believe) the youngest member of BMI, because of her dad, her flute, and a maddeningly incomplete piece of Basil Poledouris music that she helped to complete.
There. I told you it was cute.