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He’ll Be Back: Composer Brad Fiedel Reclaims the ‘Terminator’ Score

Brad Fiedel never had the chance to mix and sequence his iconic, commanding Terminator score on a record — until now. When the sci-fi/action film got its official soundtrack via Enigma Records in 1984, it featured selections of Fiedel’s synth-stacked composition interspersed with movie song placements like Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz’s propulsive “Burnin’ in the Third Degree.” In 1994, a German record company called Edel AG licensed the rights to release Fiedel’s composition all by itself; Fiedel was on board with the project, but he asked to be consulted for studio sessions. 

“They guaranteed me I would have final say and be involved in the final mixes,” Fiedel tells SPIN over the phone from his home in Santa Barbara, California. “And then that didn’t happen. I don’t like to be someone who holds a grudge, but I felt quite betrayed on that, because this was my work.” 

The 65-year-old Long Island native has regained creative control over all 24 tracks he created for The Terminator, which, of course, follows a murderous cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who travels through time to kill a woman, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), before she gives birth to the man who will eventually save humanity from a bionic, apocalyptic future. Remastered for vinyl from the original tapes, The Terminator: Original Music by Brad Fiedel, arrives on April 7 via Milan Records, having been mixed and sequenced for the first time as was originally intended.

Fiedel, who has also been a touring keyboardist with Hall and Oates and wrote music for The Terminator‘s 1991 sequel, Judgement Day, spoke to us in detail about working with director James Cameron on his first feature film and finally arranging the Terminator score the way it was always meant to be heard.

How did you become involved with scoring the Terminator?
My agent, a woman named Beth Donahue, is the one who connected me with James Cameron. I got a call from her saying, “I gave a cassette of your music to this young director; he’s got this low-budget action picture. He and the producer want to come show you the film in your studio and talk to you.”

So, Jim [Cameron] showed up at my studio and showed me The Terminator. It didn’t have any music, which was my request — I really whenever possible like to see films without music so I can hear in my head the ideas that are coming to me. But there was a point I’ll never forget where it looks like the Terminator’s finally down, and he gets up again. I remember saying out loud, “If he gets up one more time I’m leaving.” [Laughs.]

He'll Be Back: Composer Brad Fiedel Reclaims the 'Terminator' Score

And this was back before James Cameron became a household name.
You know, I worked with a lot of first-time and early career directors at that point in my career, because that’s where I was, I was starting out. And a lot of them could sit and talk to you about their film and be very impressive — they had all these ideas about what the film meant, what was happening, and what they’d accomplished. And then they’d show it to you and you’d go, “Oh… Okay.” Meanwhile you’re sitting there saying, “I don’t see any of that s**t.” [Laughs.] When Jim spoke about the film, he was very articulate about what he was going for. And I’m one more time going, “Oh boy, here we go.” And then I’m watching it, going, “Wow. It’s there.”

Great that you stuck with him.
There was some interesting stuff… we were dealing with Hemdale Pictures at the time, and they didn’t have a great reputation as far as actually paying people. So the two main agents in [my] agency were warning me, “You shouldn’t do this, the money’s gonna be a hassle, they’ll never pay, we’ve had problems with them…” And [my agent’s] saying, “Brad, you gotta do this.”

So in spite of all these hassles, Jim was great. We had a great relationship. But the film people, the people that we were dealing with legally and financially were really difficult. And I just hung in there. At one point I actually started scoring the film without a contract. So I just went ahead because I had my own studio, so I wasn’t out of pocket for the studio time.

In terms of sound, what did you envision while you watched the film without music?
The way that I work, it’s often kind of a delayed reaction. I tried to watch things as a film audience. The first screening of a film, I clear my head and just experience it, purposely not trying to think about the music. I watched the film, felt its impact, and then played some stuff for Jim and Gale [Ann Hurd, The Terminator producer] — actually some of my private work, just exploring some of the technology and working with a combination of acoustic piano and a bunch of electronics. I had this dark concerto piece that I’d been working on. I could see they were interested in me, but I needed to close the deal. And I played them this concerto piece, Jim just was like, “Yeah, this has that kind of feeling.” It had nothing to do with what the Terminator ended up sounding like, but it did have some of the vocabulary in terms of the juxtaposition of acoustic piano with these really basic synth sounds.

Did you write the soundtrack’s theme with any of the film’s story themes in mind — humanity’s certain doom, a problematic reliance on machines, etc.?
It’s not that I thought about the plot — I was just immersed. I’m kind of like a method composer. I would just kind of go into it and say, “Okay, this is what I’m feeling. I know a little bit intellectually from talking to Jim of where, what he’s trying to do.”

Jim was very specific, especially in the first Terminator. He did not want the audience to be in their heads. He wanted them to be in their guts, on the edge of their seats. In the love scene, I actually surprised Jim. He had made a temp track, which I declined to listen to, and when he came in and I played him my approach, which is what’s in the film, he almost looked like he got whiplash. There was a moment where he said, “Okay, they’re making love, and there’s hope for the future of mankind.” [The score] has a drive to it, but the fact that it’s featuring an acoustic piano in the midst of all this was something I felt was important, and I was really happy that he ended up agreeing.

But you were not technically involved in anything past Judgement Day — Rise of the Machines, etc.? Is there a reason why you’re still credited?
Yeah, that’s just because they used the theme. And it’s interesting because as far as franchises go, there has been this surprising resistance, starting with Terminator 3 and 4, to really using the original score as any kind of template. They’ve kind of gone off in very different directions.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen anything past Terminator 2.
Yeah, well, me either, really. Part of [why they don’t use my score] is financial. The more they use of the original score, the more they have to pay for the rights. I mean, I have nothing to do with that part — the rights are owned by whoever owns them. They’ve kind of moved around. But I think they would’ve loved in a sense to establish a new musical identity, because they’re different production groups that need the other films, and they would rather have the right to a new Terminator theme and make money on it rather than pay.

But it’s kind of strange, and people have asked me, “Why do you think they’re doing that?” And I’ve guessed and stuff, but I don’t really know. I was pleased that in the last Terminator, I think they used it in the end title. There was a little bit more attempt to incorporate some of the original energy. And the composer, Lorne Balfe I think his name is, on Terminator Genisys did a really great full orchestra version of my theme.

Is this the first time the score has been sequenced for commercial release, period?
The original soundtrack that was released was one half my score. The other songs, in, say, the disco sequence, were added and weren’t composed by me. Then, when the score was becoming iconic, [Edel AG] licensed the rights to re-release a [score-only] CD. Unfortunately, that was not a good experience for me. They requisitioned the 24 tracks which I held. A lot of the way I created the score had to do with choices in the mixing. How loud it would be played in relation to the other tracks is a big part in creation the texture of the score.

The next thing I knew, I was waiting to hear from them, and the thing got released. It’s funny because they meant to call it the “Definitive Version,” and they didn’t even get the title of it right. They called it the “Definite Version.” Legally, by the way, I had to give them the 24 tracks. It wasn’t my choice.

Well, this new release must give you a real sense of closure.
Yes, totally. And of course we had the freedom too to do a lot of cues that nobody’s ever heard before. Just because we had more space, we had more time to do that. Truthfully, I’ve always been shocked that people would want to listen to many of my scores for listening, because I was a film composer who was almost a filmmaker first and a composer second. When I listen to the music away from the visual, there’s a part of me that winces a little bit because it wasn’t really made to be listened to without the visual. But I’m also thrilled and flattered that people over the years have enjoyed listening.