The theme of the film, said writer-director Joel Oliansky, could focus on almost any profession. Both of the film's co-stars, Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss, had strong reactions to the film's theme. Oliansky pointed out: "We live in a competitive society in which there is more and more direct rivalry between men and women. Being less successful than someone you love is a hell of a battering for an ego to take. That's true on a college campus, in business, in the arts, anywhere. We chose classical music because it's a field in which the odds against even earning a living are so high. And it enables us to intensify the drama with some glorious music."
The link between music and temperament determined the six concerti which the finalists would perform. The selection, including Concerto #5 in E Flat Major, Opus 73, "The Emperor" by Beethoven (Dreyfuss), Piano Concerto #3 in C Major, Opus 26 by Prokofiev (Irving), Concerto 4f1 in E Flat Major by Lizst (Stern), Concerto #1 in E Minor, Opus 11 by Chopin (Henderson), Concerto #1 in D Minor, Opus 15 by Brahms (Kreigler) and Concerto #2 in G Minor, Opus 22 by St. Saens (Cali), was made by musical director Lalo Schifrin who then took on the monumental task of abridging each work.
One of the contestants in the film was a real classical pianist: Adam Stern, who portrayed the virtually silent Mark Landau. He is now a full-time symphony conductor living and working in Seattle.
In preparation for their roles playing pianists in this film, according to the film's production notes, actress Amy Irving and actor Richard Dreyfuss trained in piano playing for around four months. The 23rd January 1981 edition of show-business trade paper 'The Hollywood Reporter' stated that the piano playing training period with music consultant Jean Evensen Shaw prior to principal photography ran for about almost three months.
In addition to coaching the film's six "competitors" in piano technique, Jean Evensen Shaw stayed on throughout the production, providing technical advice. Actress Lee Remick recalled that Shaw's help was "invaluable. Remick recalls that Shaw's help was "invaluable. Remick explained: "She kept us from making awful mistakes for which a real musician would have hooted us off the screen". One such scene was a verbal sparring match between Lee Remick) and Amy Irving over Richard Dreyfuss' intrusion in their well-ordered lives. Both women are sipping wine and as the argument escalates, Remick puts her goblet down on the sounding board of a grand piano and rises to confront her student."No, no." Shaw cried out as if in personal pain: "I don't care how excited you are. You must never put food or drink near such a beautiful instrument. You could damage it forever". The scene was re-staged.
Like Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Wanamaker a perfectionist in preparing for a role. Producer William Sackheim recalled: "He went to sleep every night, wearing earphones, listening to the scores he would conduct. He had never faced an orchestra before, but he was so natural that the musicians found themselves following his tempo. At one point, when a tympanist blew an entrance, he complained that Sam gave me the wrong cue. Then he realized what he was saying". At the completion of filming, Wanamaker received perhaps the highest tribute his "orchestra" could pay him, an honorary membership with the American Federation of Musicians.
When the film was released, the press releases promoted the fact that this was one of the rare times when the audience actually got to see the actors playing the keys of the piano. Most films that dealt with scenes or plots where characters play the piano would be shot from behind or in front of the piano so their hands were not visible. The actors for The Competition rehearsed so that they could actually mimic the hand movements of a pianist.
Both of the film's co-stars, Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss, had strong reactions to the film's theme. To actor Richard Dreyfuss, the film's theme was competition which is what "makes us strive for perfection. Few people know more about the pressure of competition than actors. We've all gone through the lean years, when landing even a bit role meant beating out maybe fifty rivals. You never know what's going on in the other room during someone else's audition. So it forces you to be as damn near perfect as you can".
"The genesis for the film took place when [producer William] Sackheim and I almost simultaneously got the idea for a love story set against the background of a world class piano competition said director Joel Oliansky. Sackheim said: "It occurred to me that at that level, winning involved more than talent. It required dedication, fire, selfishness, tunnel vision, inexhaustible reserves of energy, perhaps most of all, competitive drive. It seems like rich source material for a movie". Oliansky agreed and characteristically began doing his homework. He spent months traveling extensively, visiting music schools and conservatories, talking with students, and attending concerts and festivals.
Producer William Sackheim said of the film's writer-director Joel Oliansky: "No writer I know devotes more energy to research than Joel. He's like a sponge. He absorbs every minute detail of a subject." Typical of Oliansky's approach is a scene in which the six musicians choose the pianos they will play during the finals. Heidi passively makes her selection and is assured the instrument will be tuned prior to her performance. She questions whether it will also be voiced and the answer is a flat no. Paul is furious on Heidi's behalf. "What the hell is the good of tuning a piano if you don't voice it?", he storms. "It will be hopeless by intermission". The scene not only mirrors the deepening feeling between the rivals, Sackheim points out, but also the depth of Oliansky's research. "Voicing a piano.bringing the sound levels into balance, is precisely what would drive someone like Paul, with so much at stake, berserk. But who would know that except a trained musician or a hell of a well-researched writer?".
With the screenplay completed, Joel Oliansky's concern for authenticity segued into his role as director. Rather than resort to the time-honored Hollywood trick of placing the camera behind the keyboard so that the actor's hands are obscured, with someone else's fingers intercut into the scene, Oliansky engaged concert pianist Jean Evensen Shaw to coach the cast in such skills as fingering, pedaling, posture, and arm-and-wrist coordination.
Star Richard Dreyfuss, had never played a note of music on the piano. For two months, Dreyfuss studied with piano teacher Jean Evensen Shaw, practicing an average of four hours a day. Producer William Sackheim said: "He can now play quite well, though not brilliantly enough . . . of course . . . to perform his own concert".
The actors, including pianist Adam Stern, were matched with six of the nation's most notable pianists, who pre-recorded their recital pieces. Included were Daniel Pollock, Chet Swiatkowsky, Lincoln Mayorga, Ralph Grierson, and Edvardo Delgado, each chosen for a style which matched the personality of the character concerned.
To writer-director Joel Oliansky the music in "The Competition" is an integral part of the story itself. Oliansky said: "We are dealing with mysteries. One is the mystery of musical genius. The other is the mystery of why two people, out of all those who come in contact with each other every day, should fall in love. They are inter-related. Great music has always been, at its most exultant, an expression of love".
Both of the film's co-stars, Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss, had strong reactions to the film's theme. Actress Amy Irving speaks of the film's theme in terms of sexual confrontation. Irving said: "Most woman are brought up to believe that a man's career comes first. Women are supposed to stay home, have their babies and enjoy success vicariously . . . second hand. It's extremely difficult for a man to deal with a woman who makes more money, or enjoys more of the intangible rewards, than he does. Human relationships are tough enough without that new element. All you can ask of a man . . . if he's in love . . .is to try".
Among the film's co-stars, several enjoyed at least, a nodding acquaintance with the keyboard ,and one, Adam Stern, who portrayed Mark Landau, was a professional pianist, composer, and conductor.
Conducting coach and consultant Leo Arnaud prepared the symphony orchestra which was conducted onscreen by actor Sam Wanamaker. Wanamaker's first appearance on the set prompted several comments on his physical resemblance to composer, conductor, arranger, and pianist Leonard Bernstein. Thereby, said producer William Sackheim, hangs a tale. When he and Joel Oliansky teamed on The Law (1974), an actor was needed to play a flamboyant trial lawyer in the tradition of Melvin Belli and F. Lee Bailey, Sackheim asked the writer-director whom he saw in the role? "Leonard Bernstein" Oliansky replied. "Fine," said the producer, "I'll get him for you". Sackheim recalls that, "at first, Joel thought I was serious. But when he met Sam Wanamaker he knew what I'd meant. Both men not only have similar aquiline features and flowing white hair, but the same great theatrical sense".
As its setting, cultural centers throughout the country were considered with San Francisco the final choice. Its status as a cultural center, however, was almost too much of a good thing. By the time locations were being scouted, virtually all of the city's leading concert halls were fully booked. The solution was a cinematic tale of two cities.
When Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving arrive at the auditorium, with its polished stone steps and gleaming glass doors, they are actually at the entrance to the San Francisco Museum of Natural History. Once inside, they are in the Scottish Rites Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, east of Highland Avenue, in downtown Los Angeles, some five hundred miles away.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards (Oscars) in 1981, for Best Editing and Best Music - Original Song for the track "People Alone", but the picture failed to win a gong in either category, losing to Raging Bull (1980) and Fame (1980) respectively. The debut theatrical release of The Competition (1980) was originally slated to premiere in 1981. The 16th December 1980 edition of show-business trade paper 'Daily Variety' reported that writer-director Joel Oliansky requested that the film be released during 1980 in time to qualify for the Oscars (Academy Awards). The picture debuted stateside in the USA on 3rd December 1980 in time for Oscar / Academy Award qualification.
The amount of time each day that thirty-year-old concert pianist Paul Dietrich (Richard Dreyfuss) practiced the piano was around fifteen hours per day.
The concerti heard in the film are carefully selected excerpts; the actual pieces run in the half-hour range to perform in their entirety.
The Competition (1980) renewed a creative collaboration between producer William Sackheim and writer-director Joel Oliansky which at the time dated back around a decade. Oliansky came to the West Coast to work as a screenwriter, following a suggestion by a college friend, Francis Ford Coppola. Sackheim, a veteran producer with a reputation for launching young talent, was producing the TV series The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970). Oliansky wrote an episode of the show and won an Emmy Award. Three years later, the collaboration brought about the landmark TV drama The Law (1974). Again, an Emmy Award resulted, this time as the best program of 1974, complemented by Oliansky's receipt of the Writers Guild Award and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Sackheim said: "It was inevitable that we would do a picture together". All that was required was the right project.
While the Hillman Competition, on which the story hinges, is fictional, it is a synthesis of several major American musical events, said producer William Sackheim.
"There was no problem adjusting our schedule to film the exteriors in one city and interiors in another" said producer William Sackheim. who added: "And as a site for a movie in which music is so important, we could not have been more fortunate. Heifetz does all of his recording at the Scottish Rites Temple because its acoustics are flawless".
Excerpts from concertos that were featured in the film were from such classic composers as Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Domenico Scarlatti as well as from such modern composers as Alexander Scriabin, Alberto Ginastera, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Camille Saint-Saëns.
Original piano music was written for the film by contemporary composer Lalo Schifrin. To Schifrin, the project was a rare event. He said: "The goal of a motion picture score is to heighten what is happening on screen, and in this case, we were able to call on the greatest composers of all time to do that job for us". Schifrin also composed a theme song, "People Alone", elements of which are heard at various moments in the film, and sung over the final credits by Randy Crawford, with lyrics by Will Jennings.
The value of prize for "The Competition" was $20,000 plus a debut recital at Carnegie Hall and two years of concert bookings throughout the USA.
The number of finalists in "The Competition" was six after an initial twelve competitors. The grand finale of "The Competition" involved playing a concerto with the orchestra conducted by legendary music maestro Andrew Erskine and then performing a selection of music pieces of their own choice.
The famous conductor character of Andrew Erskine played by Sam Wanamaker has been compared to Leonard Bernstein.
One of two cinema movies released in the year 1980 starring actress Amy Irving. The films were The Competition (1980) and Honeysuckle Rose (1980). Both pictures related to music. Moreover, Irving's next major role was in Barbra Streisand's musical Yentl (1983).
Star Richard Dreyfuss, even after pre-production piano playing training, continued to practice the piano with music consultant Jean Evensen Shaw during the three months of principal photography filming the picture. Dreyfuss would participate in extra further piano rehearsing between takes on the movie. Reportedly, Dreyfuss had struggled with the hand co-ordination required to play a piano.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss had no prior exposure or experience to piano playing or classical music history according to the 23rd January 1981 edition of show-business trade paper 'The Hollywood Reporter'. Reportedly, according to music consultant Jean Evensen Shaw, Dreyfuss' hands were smaller than typical piano concert pianists.
Some movie posters for this film featured a text preamble that read: "He has been working for this moment his entire life. This is his last chance. For her, this could be the beginning. And it would be the perfect love story if it weren't for...THE COMPETITION. They broke the cardinal rule of the competition...they fell in love".
According to the 23rd January 1981 edition of show-business trade paper 'The Hollywood Reporter', actress Amy Irving and actor Richard Dreyfuss achieved "verisimilitude" with the assistance of a Fender-Rhodes silent keyboard. Whilst pre-recorded piano music was played through a sound system, pretend pianists Irving and Dreyfuss synched in their silent piano playing with the actual piano music.
Joel Oliansky was hired by RASTAR Productions head Ray Stark to direct his first theatrical feature film and for it, to write an original screenplay which included both good music and a love story. This was reported in the 16th December 1980 edition of show-business trade paper 'Daily Variety'.