Extended transcript: John Williams on Spielberg, "Star Wars," and the power of music

In this extended transcript of correspondent Tracy Smith's interview with John Williams for "CBS Sunday Morning," conducted at Tanglewood (the summer performance home of the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops), the composer talks about his partnership with director Steven Spielberg, a collaboration unparalleled in film. He also discusses the all-consuming nature of writing music; working on "Star Wars"; and why he doesn't watch his films once they're done.


TRACY SMITH: So, you conducted the Boston Pops for more than a decade. Do you feel, coming to Tanglewood, like you're home?

JOHN WILLIAMS: Oh, Tanglewood is definitely my home and it's many ways spiritual and musical and otherwise. Your viewers will probably know it's a summer home of the Boston Symphony. But Tanglewood is also the home of Norman Rockwell. So, if you're familiar with the 'Four Freedoms,' and the atmosphere of all of that, they will understand that that atmosphere is still preserved here.

And the history of it spiritually and artistically is very deep. I speak about Tanglewood with such affection and love. Maybe more than you want to hear. But I will remind your viewers that Daniel Chester French who did the Lincoln Memorial [statue] did it here. And you can go to his studio and see the models of Lincoln that he made there. And then people don't know where that statue came from. Well, it came from the Berkshires, from Tanglewood, actually.

SMITH: How does it feel for you; what does it do you to your soul to come back here?

Composer John Williams. CBS News

WILLIAMS: Well, I really believe that it's a spooky place. The hills of the Berkshires attracted spiritual groups like the Shakers and artists – Melville and Hawthorne and Edith Wharton and Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein. The reason that they all came here to work is that it really is an inspiring place.

The trees are always inspiring to us everywhere you go. But this is something very, very spiritual and special. And I think for musicians particularly, and writers also, the palate of what we do is silence. You know, you can get in among the trees if you like and listen to the trees and the breeze, and the place to ruminate is unequaled in this kind of thing. So, this place is a big part of American cultural history, a much bigger place than most people are aware of.

SMITH: That's true.

WILLIAMS: There's so much history here. And just to answer your question, its effect on me is very spiritual and very exciting. And I've written so much music here, so many film scores in this place.

SMITH: Here?

WILLIAMS: Right here. I come every summer.

SMITH: Can you drop some names, the scores that you wrote here?

WILLIAMS: "Star Wars" films, "Indiana Jones," and "Schindler's List" and "Harry Potter" and all of this work, a great percentage of that work done physically here, because it's such a happy place to be. I discovered this place in 1980 [while conducting the Boston Pops]. So, I've now been coming here for 39 years every summer, happily conducting the orchestra briefly each year. And it's a big part of my life. And the perfect antidote to the Hollywood activities that I do the rest of the year.

[Listen to audio excerpts from some of John Williams' best scores.]

SMITH: That's true. Very different.

WILLIAMS: Completely different, in every possible way. But it's also very exciting because the one thing is the re-invigoration of the other. So, it keeps me, maybe not young, but hopefully a little fresh! (LAUGHS)

SMITH: You are still very fresh and I don't mean that in the pejorative sense.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SMITH: So, you talk about the kind of solitude that you feel here. Your process is, you're very isolated, almost monk-like.

WILLIAMS: It is. Yeah. Composing music, I'm very unreconstructed, Tracy. You know, when I was studying music, they didn't have computers and all the synthesizers and so on, sound substitutes and the rest of it. So, I learned to write with a pencil and paper, which are still usable tools, but only, sort of, monk-ish elderly. Very few of my younger colleagues work that way. But I've been so busy in my working life that I never had time really to retool. So, I still do it in this, what is to younger people a very primitive way of writing music note-by-note. And I haven't changed. So I am slower than my younger colleagues, I must have to admit.

SMITH: But it works. (LAUGH)

WILLIAMS: Well, I hope it works. You know, it's what I know and what I'm used to, and I think probably the great music – when we think about Bach, for example, he must have been using a quill pen or something. I think if you write a letter with a pen, you think one way – a paper for school or whatever – and if you do it this way, it isn't the same process. And so it's, kind of, like making home dough. You know, the same. You have an eraser and go back and correct what you did in the morning and so on.

SMITH: How all-consuming is your work when you are composing?

WILLIAMS: Well, anybody that writes knows that thinking about what you're writing is a 24/7 thing. You get in bed at night and you think, "Ah, that should be this tune," or, "That should be a different key," or whatever. "It shouldn't be an oboe. It ought to be a flute." Now that's at 1:00 in the morning, you know. And it's very hard maybe to decompartmentalize these kind of activities for people who do what I do.

One thing I would say about it is that it's a great privilege to be able to work the way I work. But it is so intense that you neglect things.

SMITH: Like?

WILLIAMS: You can neglect people. You can neglect family. I have wonderful children. My late wife is gone. But my present wife is very happy. But it does so consume your life, this work, which it really shouldn't. A lot of the work that I do is certainly not that important. But the process of doing it is so all-consuming just suggest the word you used, that is the truth of it. It's isn't a sometimes thing. It's a full-time thing.

At least with me, and I think most others who do similar work. And also like a journalist, probably in your world, you write a paper one day on a Wednesday and it's published the next day. And the following Wednesday, you look at it and you think, "My God, I could have improved my prose if I had another two hours to work this."

And I think it's also true in the film music world. When I score paper and give it to a librarian, I know it's not coming back to me. The next time I'll see it is on the stage with the orchestra. So, like journalism, there's little time for second and third thoughts and rewrites. The beautiful thing of working with an artist like Anne-Sophie [Mutter] is that when we created these adaptations of my tunes, we did a lot of back-and-forth. And I could do rewrites and drive her crazy with changes. (LAUGHS) And she would learn one thing and I'd – fortunately, I only imagined how much trouble I must have caused her. (LAUGHS) But she rose to every occasion.

SMITH: Do you listen to the film scores once they're in the movies, once they're out there?

WILLIAMS: No. No.

SMITH: No? Why not?

WILLIAMS: 'Cause I'm writing music all the time, Tracy. And therefore, it's no comfort to listen to it. I don't listen to music very much.

SMITH: At all?

WILLIAMS: If you go to a dinner party, which I do rarely, and somebody has music on, I'm thinking, "Well, that's in D major. And oh, my God, the F sharp is flat." And meanwhile, halfway through whatever we're eating, it's hard not to listen to it if you've been trained in not only conducting, but also editing so much music where you're listening to minutia in every take and editing, you know, and now digitally, of course.

I'm overstating the matter, I'm sure, and exaggerating it a little bit to make the point. But if I listen to great classical composers, I would only think, "That's much better than anything I could write." It isn't comforting. (LAUGHS)

SMITH: It's not inspiring?

WILLIAMS: (LAUGHS) No!

SMITH: It's not comforting.

WILLIAMS: No. It does make me think that one can always be better. 'Cause the greatest writing of music has been this development out of church music into Bach and finally Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on. The art of arranging notes and tones has never reached a higher point than that – that was the apex probably of tonal organization. We've since gone to some aspects of total dis-organization. Very exciting and the way to go, but we have still always the great masters to look at, without envy and the greatest admiration ever possible, at least in my case.

SMITH: So, you don't listen to music that much recreationally. You don't go to movies.

WILLIAMS: I don't go to movies. No.

SMITH: You haven't seen a lot of the movies that your music is in?

WILLIAMS: Not after we dub them, Tracy, I've seen them 50 times.

SMITH: And that's enough? (LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: And so, it's enough, you know. And at a dubbing session, you know, at the end of the scoring, which is, like, three or four weeks or maybe more of intensive doing it every day, sitting in the theater fixing levels and so on and making changes, and I will go to a premiere always to see how well we've done, but there's always an issue there because every theater will give you a different playback image.

We've got at Fox Studios, or Disney, is supposed to be the perfect sound representation for the perfect theatre. There's rarely a perfect theater. So, you don't wanna overreact to what you hear – there isn't enough bass, and you put more in. Now there's too much in the next theater. Eventually, you can go a little crazy doing that. So, the best thing to do is do the best work you can and let it fly and let it float and go on to the next thing. So ergo, I don't go to the movies. I don't listen to what I've written. I will listen to what I've written with Anne-Sophie, but I haven't done since we have done the editing. And I will wait and listen later. And I will listen better or more objectively, I'm sure.

SMITH: If you give it some space.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

"The Rise of Skywalker"

SMITH: This is the last "Star Wars" you're doing? Is that true?

WILLIAMS: Yes, it is.

SMITH: Why is that? You feel that this is the right time?

WILLIAMS: Well, certainly, I think it's the end of the Skywalker story, as far as I understand it. Disney, which is the company that owns Lucasfilm, may want to go on and produce more Lucas-inspired films. But this will put the bow on the package for me.

And it'll probably be the end of a sort of thematic flow, which started on the first movie and ended now. What's wild for me as a composer of "Star Wars" is this has never happened – it's my good fortune, the good fortune in the sense that I did the music for the first film. It was this, that, and the other theme. In the second film, I had this, that, and the other theme and two more themes. And so the glossary of things has expanded over all these years. We couldn't play it all in one night. There's too much of it.

SMITH: After the first film, you didn't know there was going to be a second film.

WILLIAMS: No.

SMITH: And you also didn't know the relationship between Luke and Leia?

WILLIAMS: No, I didn't. Well, the first film, George Lucas didn't give us any indication there would be a second film. And I don't think he knew himself, 'cause he wrote the script on a yellow pencil pad, as he did with all the subsequent ones, and I know that he didn't think the film was gonna be that successful, because he told his friend Steven Spielberg, "Oh, no. This is not gonna work," and so on.

Steven said, "No, it's great. It'll be playing for months." And it played for years after. Surprised everybody. But the story I tell about Luke and Leia, I saw them as two young people in the first film that I would never see again. And they seemed to be compatible. They had fun together. They did the action scenes together. And I figured, "Well, sooner or later, they will be lovers and they'll have children and you know, so I wrote a love theme for Princess Leia, not knowing for, like, two or three years that they were brother and sister. I'm not even sure when George (LAUGHS) told us. That was the second film, or the third ["Return of the Jedi"]. So I had to go back and write different themes for (LAUGHS) the various relationships that came into focus over time.

"Princess Leia's Theme" from "Star Wars"

A music-only scene from "The Last Jedi" featuring Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), with a reprise of Luke and Leia's theme from "Return of the Jedi."

The Last Jedi 'The Spark' Scene - Music Only by Ignacio Miranda on YouTube

Steven Spielberg

SMITH: What do you think it is about that collaboration [with Steven]? Why do the two of you work so well together?

WILLIAMS: I don't know. Steven and I have been working together since '73. That must be, like, 45 years.

SMITH: That's remarkable.

WILLIAMS: He's an amazing person as probably most people know by now. He's a great movie director and a great producer, but also a great philanthropist in the major ways that are not publicized.

When I met him, he was about 23- or 24-years-old, and studio executives asked if we would have lunch. And I went to the restaurant to meet him and it was a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills. And I the maitre d' took me over to the table. And here was this skinny kid that looked about 17. And I thought, "My, this is the director that they sent me to see?" And I sat down with him. We began to talk and I realized in a minute that he was brilliant. He knew more about film music, he could recall themes that I had written from films that I had forgotten, and others from older colleagues that I had forgotten.

And it turned out to be an amiable general in his management of photography and editing and set building and everything else. He seemed to have, as a kid, this mastery of his art, and again, very like Anne-Sophie who was a wunderkind when she was a baby. Steven has a similar quality.

And also, he hasn't changed. It's the same, to me, little, very young man who was very sweet and not naive. And I've also seen him in meetings with business people and so on when he was a grownup adult and masterful in his dealings with people. Forty-plus years of working together, we've never had an argument.

SMITH: Never?

WILLIAMS: And he said something that's very interesting as a director and a producer. He comes to my office and I play things for him on the piano. In all these years, he's never said, "I don't like that. It's not, you know, try something else." By the time I get halfway through, I can see from his face muscles where I am with this thing. And he's enthusiastic about everything, even the things that we reject. Sometimes I'll do a scene with the orchestra and I frequently write two versions. And I know exactly which one he's gonna take. But it's part of the process that I need to go through to get somewhere between his thinking and mine that will meet.

I think one other thing that I would mention why the relationship with Spielberg is so lasting, he loves music. So many producers will go on the stage, we have a 90-piece orchestra sitting there, it's very expensive, and they will worry: "When are we gonna finish? Let them go." It's more expensive if we go into overtime and people understand this.

And at the end of our session, Steven will come to me. "Have you got any more? Play some more. Don't let them go." It's an almost physical joy.

The first recording session of "Jaws," Steven brought his mother to the recording session. And the man who was the former concertmaster, the lead violinist of the Philadelphia orchestra was our lead violinist on the session, a great violinist. And Steven said to his mother, "Oh, we've got the concertmaster from Philadelphia Orchestra for my film. Look at this." The pride that he had, a pride in the music and the music makers that all the directors I've worked with, including Alfred Hitchcock, who relied on music and understood the need of it, nobody has the same musicality.

The shark chase from Spielberg's "Jaws," featuring Williams' Oscar-winning score:

Jaws (1975) - Barrels Scene (5/10) | Movieclips by Movieclips on YouTube

"Schindler's List"

SMITH: When he first showed you "Schindler's List," what did you say?

WILLIAMS: Oh, I had a story that I'd love to say. What we usually do is, when he finishes photography, we have a session, usually just the two of us, and the idea was just watch the film and take it off and we would have a discussion of what the music should do and how it should work and so on.

And the film played and it broke my heart, as anybody would know that's seen it. And the last scene in the film takes place in Israel where Oskar Schindler, who was the hero of this thing and did the work to save so many lives, people were coming – children and adults – putting stones on the graveside of Oskar Schindler who was buried [with] honor at Israel.

And then the lights came up and it's time to start our meeting. And that was, like, I don't bawl, but I really was choked up. And I said, "Steven, I just have to leave the room." And I went outside and walked around, collect myself, and back in to start the meeting. And this is just about verbatim. I said, "Steven, this is a great film and you really need a better composer than I am for this film." And he said, "I know. But they're all dead." (LAUGHS) So, I went on to become the "live composer." (LAUGHS)

SMITH: That's a lovely story. (LAUGHS)

WILLIAMS: I love to tell that story.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and John Williams record the theme from "Schindler's List," for the album "Across the Stars":

Anne-Sophie Mutter and John Williams recording "Schindler's List"

SMITH: I know you're a very modest man, but do you ever allow yourself that moment to step back and say, "Wow. Look what I've done."

WILLIAMS: Tracy, I'll be completely honest with you. It's very hard for me to take complete pleasure in anything that I've made because – I don't know if you have any children. You love everything about every one of your children. And there's always something that you wish you could correct or you wish your genes might have helped a little more (LAUGHS) in this or that area, and that's exactly what it is.

You can love it and you can love it all, but you can always see things that could be improved, that alas, once it's out and published and so on and so forth, it's gone from your control. I wish I had the kind of personality I could say, "Ah, this is fantastic." But I don't think, in the art of music, I don't think there's any place for that kind of vanity. I don't know who else could possibly feel that way given the shoulders we stand on.

SMITH: But your shoulders are pretty broad and strong at this point. You're part of that foundation now.

WILLIAMS: Well, I couldn't get into the NFL. (LAUGHS)

SMITH: How long will you keep writing?

WILLIAMS: Keep writing? As long as I can. You know that's a very good question about anything we do. I think we always will want to do it as long as we are healthy, as long as the ability to do it is there. And in any kind of writing, I thought the mood that you're in is very good. Even in your work, we all will do better work when we feel good.

There's a little difference between a bad day and a good day, or a good interview and a bad interview and so on. I feel very, very lucky. I've been working I don't know how many years, 65 years, 60, a long time. And my wife occasionally will say to me, "Do something useless. Go write some music or go to the piano and play something."

Also, I don't think anybody retires from music. It sounds corny, but it is a part of your breathing not only for musicians, but everybody. An octave on a Stradivarius is one thing. An octave on a little wooden flute in the New Guinea Jungle is the same thing. It is universal.

I don't think you leave music. You might end up your very last day in life singing the first song your mother taught you.

Music, I always say that it's three things: It's the composer, and it's an orchestra or a singer, and the listener. And what music is, is the stuff in-between, the spirit [of] the three participants who lean on each other. I need Anne-Sophie. I can write all those notes; what good will it do me [outside] of the clutter of the room? She can play it by miracles, I don't know how she does it, truly, and then an audience [hears it].

It's a great life. I don't wanna say it's like people who have great faith, which you know, it's hard to understand somehow, how people feel about things that belong to them and they are constants, they are consistent with us always. And I believe that about music.

I can say about Anne-Sophie, she's many things. And one of the things she is, is a great virtuoso who travels around the world to countries everywhere. And think about the fact that the country of China right now is purchasing more pianos than the rest of the world combined, I think, not exaggerating.

What is a better connection between East, West, and the various competing powers than the universal language of the Strad and the little white wooden flute? She goes [to] probably every country in the world and she plays music to them and they hold her in their hands or in their hearts for a minute. And she will be play whatever she plays. But that's foreign policy at the highest level. You don't have to be the in the State Department. You can do this, to remind people that we are one thing. We all hear the octave in the same way, whatever your cultural adaptations in music and phraseology are. We are one family. I believe that we are one brain. I'm not spooky or religious or anything, but I believe that.

SMITH: And that's the power of music.

WILLIAMS: It is the power that music can transport between or connect between people, a nexus of some kind. Why do people in China or Japan and Asia love Beethoven?

I tell you as a composer, it's very interesting: You take the first page of a Beethoven symphony, after the introduction, and give me 12 bars and then try to write the next page. You can't do it. No matter how much skill you have and how much training, you can't quite go there in his brain. The ordering is a divine gift.

Music is a nexus. It's a conduit. It's a connection. But the connection is the thing that will, if we can ever evolve to the point if we can still mutate, if we can still change and through learning, get better, we can master the basic things of governance and cooperation between nations.

At the point we've gotten in life to where we are, to be so clumsy in our governance not only in our country, but around the world. It's basic. We should, by now, at this date in our history with all of our sharing of language and music and everything else, we're very far behind. And we haven't caught up to technology, which is outreaching and outstretching our powers.

So, that's why in Tanglewood, we have now the Tanglewood Learning Institute, which is not the Tanglewood Music Institute. It's the emphasis on the right word, which is learning. So we need to learn more. Learning is the thing that's gonna save us from ourselves in the end. Ecologically and in every other way, we need to smart up. Not party up, but learn up.

You can stream the Anne-Sophie Mutter-John Williams album "Across the Stars" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):

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