RDL Private Archives – RAIN MAN Notes 2010

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Notes from Perseverance Records release, Sept. 2010.

Roadmaster & Rose Bushes: The Journey of RAIN MAN

By Randall D. Larson

“What you have to understand is, four days ago he was only my brother in name. And this morning we had pancakes.”  – Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise)


Like the characters’ prolonged road trip in the movie, 1988’s RAIN MAN took a long and complicated journey to the screen, filled with obstacles that threatened to stall the picture irrevocably.  RAIN MAN told the story of self-absorbed salesman Charlie Babbitt who, after a disappointing award in his estranged father’s will, learns he has an autistic brother named Raymond, to which the $3 million family estate has been bequeathed.  Determined to extract his half of the inheritance, Charlie convinces Raymond to drive across country to Los Angeles, where he hopes to win a custody battle and net his half of his birthright.

The film had its origins, according to screenwriter Barry Morrow in his commentary track on RAIN MAN’s 2006 MGM DVD release, in Morrow’s friendship with Kim Peek, a developmentally disabled man with an encyclopedic memory.  Morrow, who had written the story for the Emmy-Award winning 1981 TV-movie BILL in which Mickey Rooney played an institutionalized retarded man who finds friendship, had developed RAIN MAN to focus on the savant concept.   “I took all the things that had happened with Bill and flipped them upside down,” Morrow said.  “Instead of friendship, this was going to be about greed.”  Morrow came up with the film’s title when he sought a name for the savant that had a different meaning when mispronounced.  After looking at “No-Man” for Norman and “Rain Man” for Raymond, he selected the latter.

At that time, Martin Brest had been slated to direct the film.  He wanted some changes and brought in screenwriter Ronald Bass to rewrite Morrow’s script.  In Morrow’s screenplay, Raymond had not been autistic but retarded.  Both lead actors, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, were involved in the film’s development process, and Hoffman suggested that his character be autistic instead of retarded.  Brest demurred at this idea.  Bass obeyed orders and finished his draft and turned it in; months later he learned that Brest was off the picture due to “artistic differences” (more likely “autistic differences,” since it was his refusal to go along with Hoffman’s idea that prompted his removal from the picture).  A few months after that, RAIN MAN was back on with a new director: Steven Spielberg. 

Bass met with Spielberg, who felt Hoffmann’s autistic aspect would give the brotherly love story the kind of dramatic obstacle to overcome that any engrossing love story needs.  Bass rewrote his script with the aid of Spielberg, Hoffman, and Cruise over the summer of 1987, essentially rebuilding the whole story.  Various experts in autism and psychiatry were brought in and added to the research that Brest had previously amassed in order to make it as real and credible as possible.  Knowing the film would be seen by autistic people and their families and friends, the team the film wanted to ensure “they didn’t feel that their experiences had been trivialized or devalued in any way,” as Bass noted in his own DVD commentary.

Spielberg wound up having to withdraw because the long redevelopment process on RAIN MAN had bumped up against the next Indiana Jones movie, which he was already committed to do with George Lucas.   So the search for yet a new director was on.  Sidney Pollock was brought in but soon decided he wasn’t keen on making a road movie and withdrew; but he called Barry Levinson and suggested he take on the movie.  Levinson (who had actually been offered the movie prior to Brest’s being signed but had turned it down to make GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM) agreed.  It would be Levinson who added the gentle layer of ironic comedy to the dramatic story that made the picture click. 

Central to the film is the Oscar-winning performance of Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt.  Hoffman, who along with Tom Cruise met with and studied a number of autistic people in order to develop his performance accurately, gave Raymond a sense of verisimilitude that made his personality and actions entirely authentic.  Hoffman also, reportedly, fought for the ending where Raymond goes back to Wallbrook, even though the screenwriters had wanted him to end up staying with Charlie; Hoffman rightly felt it would not have been true to Raymond’s character if he was made to stay with his brother.  Despite Hoffman’s accolades, however, it’s Cruise’s character that is most essential to making the film work, as Bass said: “This is our access character.  This is the character [who] changes… Tom’s character was the real engine for making this movie happen.”  At one point Hoffman had reportedly wanted Bill Murray to play Charlie, but Cruise, following up on his roles in TOP GUN, THE COLOR OF MONEY, and COCKTAIL proved to be the ideal, greedy hustler who comes to love his disabled brother.  Cruise, interviewed for the making-of featurette on the MGM DVD, described Charlie as an “emotional autistic,” who learns about life through his autistic brother; it’s his journey that is most important to the story. 

At the same time, the role that anchors the film for audiences was that of Susanna, Charlie’s long-suffering girlfriend.  Both Morrow and Bass had written the character as Susan, a tough American woman of means.  But Levinson decided to cast Italian actress Valeria Golino because he felt that having a character for whom English was a second language would allow her to legitimately question what Charlie says or does, and thus allow Cruise’s character to provide some necessary exposition.  “Culturally [and] emotionally she doesn’t understand Charlie,” Morrow added, “and she is able to ask those really hard, direct questions, like ‘why are you doing this?  Why are you so mean to your brother?’ [while] an American person in that role would not have deepened the movie or put the screws to Charlie as she [did] in her own quiet way.”  As Bass noted, she was able to express the audience’s viewpoint  toward Charlie’s being such a hard-hearted jerk, and by installing Golino as a sweet girl who loved Charlie despite this but who wasn’t afraid to stand up to him gave credence to the audience’s concerns over Charlie’s abusive behavior, and allow them to support the character through his changes.

Another important character in the movie is the 1949 Buick Roadmaster, the rare automobile that, along with his father’s prize rose bushes, was all Charlie had inherited from his father.   The vehicle serves as the story’s wheels, getting the cast from one place to another, while serving as the device through which Charlie first meets Raymond and discovers he has a brother.

“Uh oh, fifteen minutes to Wapner.” – Raymond Babbitt.

Rain Man as Road Movie: The Music

Just as important as the Buick Roadmaster as a supporting element in the film’s storytelling is it’s musical soundtrack.  Typically for Levinson and for late 1980s comedy-dramas in general, RAIN MAN’s soundtrack is a mixture of dramatic score and standalone pop songs, heard either briefly as source music or fully.  For the score, Levinson hired a young German composer by the name of Hans Zimmer, whose music for the British anti-Apartheid drama, A WORLD APART has impressed him.  RAIN MAN was Zimmer’s first Hollywood film score.

“I did RAIN MAN the way I did all my European films,” Zimmer said in an interview for the audiohead website [www.audiohead.net/interviews/hanszimmer]. “I didn’t really do it in the studio — I just set up my Fairlight in Barry’s office with a couple more toys and gadgets.  It was a relaxed way for Barry to work, too, because he didn’t have to go to a studio where there would have been the pressure of ‘My God, here comes the orchestra. We’d better get it right!’”

Zimmer produced an eclectic score mixing synthesizers (primarily a Fairlight CMI) with a heavy sonic underbelly of steel drums and drum kit.  The score is driven by rhythm, building its cadence and tone from the rolling hum of the Roadmaster’s wheels on pavement and bridge steel (a sound that Raymond mimics early in the journey as they leave Cincinnati).  Levinson wanted the music to have a propulsive rhythmic motion, which is introduced at the very start in his choice of “Iko Iko” over the main titles.  The Mardi Gras song (originally called “Jock-a-mo”) had been a hit for the girl group The Dixie Cups in 1965; Levinson selected the version by The Belle Stars, with its heavier tribal percussion.

“The aspect of the drum, which plays throughout the movie, has a certain kind of rhythm to it,” Levinson said in his own DVD commentary for RAIN MAIN.  “Hans Zimmer’ score, which is very percussion-oriented, has no strings at all.  One of the things we talked about very early on is I didn’t want any kind of strings at all in it, because I thought it would make the movie too melodramatic.  I think it’s inherent in the piece and I didn’t want to emphasize that aspect, so it’s very rhythmic throughout.”

The RAIN MAN score is built around a primary Traveling Theme, which sets the tone for the characters’ journey cross country, during which Charlie gets to know, understand, and eventually love his brother.  In a 2008 interview with John Young for ew.cm [www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20216261,00.html], Zimmer described his approach to RAIN MAN: “It was a road movie, and road movies usually have jangly guitars or a bunch of strings.  I kept thinking: don’t be bigger than the characters.  Try to keep it contained.  [Raymond] doesn’t actually know where he is. The world is so different to him.  He might as well be on Mars.  So, why don’t we just invent our own world music for a world that doesn’t really exist?”

Zimmer’s music is first heard at the funeral of Charlie’s father, an ambient tonality that sets a gentle cadence as Charlie and Susanna and make their way to the Babbitt estate.   When Charlie meets Raymond and the road trip begins, successive variations of this theme will underscore their progress across highway and byway, moving from a fairly formal vibe to a looser style as Charlie’s behavior becomes less impatient and self-serving.  Heavier drums add an element of excitement once they are on the road, while a touch of didgeridoo and a woody synth melody (abetted in the mix by pan pipes) gives it an airy, pleasing vivid sensibility.  The theme turns darker and “synthier” as, after Susanna leaves, Charlie and Raymond approach a nasty vehicle crash on the freeway which frightens Raymond.

One of the score’s high points is the Las Vegas montage, the music derived from the drum-beaten vibe of the Traveling Music but taking on an entirely new configuration here. While warming to his brother, Charlie realizes how Raymond’s amazing memory can help him win at Blackjack.  Zimmer opens into drum-heavy rock beat, punctuated by glitzy flashes of synth and electric guitar, adding a bluesy chorus and a vibrant saxophone measure as Charlie takes Raymond shopping, dressing him in style and getting him polished for gambling. Choir is added, almost heroically, as they arrive at the card tables and the games begin.  The score’s only real discordant note sounds like the shrill siren of the smoke detector Raymond accidentally sets off when trying to cook waffles; Zimmer’s nightmarish tonality here mirrors Raymond’s panic and fear, warming only when Charlie comes to the rescue. 

The score’s second major motif is a brotherly love theme that will become prominent near the end of the film.  Zimmer provides a soft, barely discernable atmosphere from very soft layers of Fairlight beneath dialog when Charlie tells Susanna about the last time he saw his father and why he left home.  “When I was a kid and got scared, the Rain Man would come and sing to me,” he muses, recalling the imaginary friend from his childhood. “What happened to him?” Susanna asks.  “Nothing, I just grew up.” Charlie says tersely.  By the end of the film, Charlie realizes that his imaginary friend was actually Raymond, whose institutionalization when Charlie was three resulted in the lost memory of his brother.  Zimmer reflects Charlie’s more sympathetic regard of Raymond with a warm, melodic clutch of synths and piano, very poignant and tender, the hollow reedy sound of the synth flutes lending a sympathetic sonority. 

This love theme becomes particularly expressive at the end of the film as Charlie, realizing Wallbrook is the best place for Raymond but intending to visit him frequently (and, by the way, reunited with Susanna), his former selfishness redeemed by his new found affection for his brother; the music resonates for piano and woody synths, very tender, hollow, earthy, and human.  Charlie, having lost his business, his inheritance and, for a time, his girl, has gained a long-lost brother and a unique insight into his own humanity.  The score celebrates this in Zimmer’s End Title music, which assumes a bright ethnic buoyancy while combining elements of the travel and love themes into a joyful refrain from the Fairlight over steel drums and a piping electronic riffing.

“We fumbled our way through that score and I thought that was the end of my Hollywood career,” Zimmer had told Audiohead.  Far from it.  RAIN MAN’s score was nominated for an Academy Award in 1989 (the film itself won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture) and it launched the composer on one of the most successful and influential careers ever seen in Hollywood film music.

“I like having you for my big brother.” – Charlie to Raymond

“C-H-A-R-L-I-E. Main man.” – Raymond to Charlie

Randall Larson writes a film music column for buysoundtrax.com and is the author of several books on film music and more than six dozen soundtrack album commentaries.

Reprinted here, with thanks, by permission of Robin Esterhammer.

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