Interview: Stanley J. Warnow

Electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott's son on his documentary about his father

Stanley J. Warnow is an editor, cinematographer, director and producer who has worked with such directors as Robert Downey Sr. and on films such as the Academy Award-winning documentary Woodstock (1970), Miloš Forman's musical Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981). His award-winning documentary film Deconstructing Dad is screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the section 2011: A Musical Odyssey. In his film, Stanley endeavors to find out more about his father, the extraordinary composer and inventor Raymond Scott, from a professional and personal point of view.

Raymond Scott, born Harry Warnow, was one of the most talented Hollywood soundtrack composers of the past century. His band, the Raymond Scott Quintette played a mixture of jazz and composed music. Scott's music was later bought by Warner Brothers and used in over 100 cartoons over 20 years. However, Scott was also a genius inventor. His "Clavivax" was the first keyboard synthesizer and his greatest invention, the Electronium -- a "simultaneous composition and performance machine" -- was purchased by one of the biggest Hollywood record companies, Motown. Scott is considered one of the founding fathers of electronic music.

I sat down with Stanley to find out more about his film and his father's fascinating life.

Raymond Scott. What's the first thing that comes to your mind?

Well, my father. A person of many paradoxes and ironies. Very gifted professionally, musically, but not as much as a parent. This paradox is depicted in the film.

When did you decide you wanted to make this film?

I was indifferent to father all my adult life after I was maybe 10 and that's the way I thought I felt about him. But after he died I suddenly realized that I had all these deep feelings for him. And after this realization came a sense of injustice that in the last 30 years or so he had been more or less forgotten by the world yet he has accomplished so much. And from there, I realized I could do a film about him. It took another six years or so to begin any meaningful work on it. We shot some 50 hours of footage, plus archival sources.

Were you surprised to hear some things about your father?

There were lots of things. He did have some political opinions that I never knew about. He worked to have the first integrated orchestra, black and white musicians, on the radio in the US. He was the first one to do that in the mid-1940s. And then I learned about his inventions. He created the first fax machine before that had really become something that was known to the world and, in fact, later on other people had to cite his patents. Professionally, I learned much more about him.

Do you think you take after him?

I think that I have a certain musical ability to work with music and film so that's probably in my genes. I don't have anything like his musical talent. I'm not a musician. Although I studied piano ... I can't really play. I think the biggest thing that comes from him is my deep interest in technology and technical things. He was a real engineer, which I'm not, but I'm very comfortable with using technology in all kinds of ways and am very interested in it. When personal computers came out, I had one as early as 1980, right at the beginning of the whole personal computer phenomenon and have always loved gadgets the way he did.

In your documentary you depict Raymond Scott as a genius composer and hard worker, but on the other hand he never had any money, especially later in his life. Would you say he was a bit of a bohemian in that way?

Well, no. He was just obsessed with his music and technical things, but he wasn't a bohemian in a sense of using drugs or drinking. He wasn't interested in that. He didn't even smoke. He didn't go out at night. When he was traveling with his band, they'd go out at night and he’d go back to his room and listen to the recording and think about how to improve things. But at the same time, he liked having and making money, but he wasn't a good businessman. He just followed what he wanted to do. He was an artist and he had artist values to having to make the work as good as it could be and to keep working. He didn't even trust banks. When he sold his house, he'd put all the money in traveler's checks and used them until they ran out.

It seems to me like the work was everything to him. And relationships with people around him weren’t that important...

Yeah, he certainly was very awkward in social situations. And for somebody to be in show business and work as a performer, he was not comfortable in front of audience. He didn't like performing. He was really happy just working by himself, whether it was composing or working on his inventions. And he was comfortable talking to engineers, etc., but he wasn't comfortable at parties and family events. I remember how my mother said ... how they had a wedding celebration and he left after a while saying he had work to do...

He was a great composer. How did he feel about use of his music in cartoons?

He never talked about it. He never composed the music directly for the cartoons. They just took [the music], licensed it, they paid for it, they recorded their own versions of it, they chopped it up -- which I'm sure he wasn't too happy about -- but he never mentioned it. His third wife, Mitzi, was married to him for many years before she knew his music was used in those cartoons. I remember as a young boy going to the movies on a Saturday morning and my mother saying that we'll hear your father's music in the cartoons, but I don't remember him saying anything. I think I [appreciate his music] better now than I did then. I think that lots of my perceptions of my father as I grew up were very much influenced by the fact that my parents had broken up. I resented him and that prevented me enjoying his music in a neutral way.

What do you think is the reason why he isn't better known?

As a performer, he was camera-shy; he wasn't what we call "a ham". He didn't seize the spotlight and promote himself. He was in two Hollywood films that I talk about in the film and you wouldn't even know it was his band. He wanted to feature his music, not himself. Then later, his inventions -- he was very paranoid about that and didn't want to share them, he thought people were going to steal his ideas. He didn't participate in the academic world, where most of the electronic music was being done, so people wouldn't know about him. And when he'd have visitors to look at his work, he'd make them sign a non-disclosure agreement. He was afraid that people would copy his work. People found him very difficult to work with. He was never finished, always improving his inventions. So he was rediscovered only some 15 years ago.

• The final screening of Deconstructing Dad at the 2011 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival will be at Divadlo Husovka on Friday, July 8pm at 4pm

Official Deconstructing Dad Facebook Page

Video on YouTube

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