Film Composers Keep Their Composure (from The Business)

Interviewed by Claude Brodesser-Akner
2006.08.27 (aired)
Audio source:
Audio dialogue transcribed by Bluntinstrument
CLAUDE BRODESSER-AKNER: When you go to the local cineplex you're going to watch a movie, not listen to it, but there's so much in a film that you hear, not see. The music for instance. But music can make or break a movie as much as any visual element. Consider this happy beach scene and how it changes when the music changes.
[audio from Jaws, introducing the memorable shark motif]
Music is one of those cinematic elements that's only doing its job well if you don't notice it, and great film music can help make a film great.
DANNY ELFMAN: I could think of a million movies where the music made the movie. I think of Lawrence of Arabia [clip follows], Maurice Jarre's score The Godfather, Nino Rota's score, all the incredible stuff that Bernard Herrmann did from Citizen Kane to North by Northwest to Psycho [clip follows].
CB-A: Have there been instances where the music UNmade the movie so to speak?
DE: Oh yeah. A million, and I'm not gonna name any of them.
CB-A: In the last 20 years, Danny Elfman's music has helped make the movie many many times. He;s written maybe a hundred scores including most of Tim Burton's films, from Batman to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and some of the most recognisable music in TV history, like the theme to The Simpsons. He's been nominated for a slew of Oscars, Emmys and other statues and plaques, but he started his music career as a Paris street busker and then the leader of the New Wave slash punk band Oingo Boingo. [Oingo Boingo clip]
DE: Five years into.. seven years, six seven years into having a rock band, Tim Burton and Paul Reubens appear and ask me if I'm interested in writing music for a movie. [It] never occured to me before and I went home and wrote a piece of music, and recorded it, sent it to them and never thought about it, and went back to work. I got a call, I don't know, a week or two later, saying I was hired. [Pee Wee music clip overlaid]. This was like the defining moment because when I got the news I told my manager that "naa I'm not going to do it". I like them too much to take this on and ruin their movie. I thought about it and woke up in the moning and I said "ah, what the hell, it's on their shoulders."
CB-A: Elfman's music sounds like nothing you've heard before, but he insists that like all film scores it relies to a certain degree on the tropes that were invented by the first film composers, like Franz Waxman, who did Bride of Frankenstein [music clip is overlaid], Max Steiner, who scored the original King Kong and Erich Korngold, who came up with the music for all those early swashbucklers.
DE: The amazing thing to me is that they had nothing to go on. There was [sic.] no guidelines to say "what do we put under action or narrative, or how do we show emotion or what do we show for tension?". They were inventing it on the spot. And what made them come up with the fact that holding long strings for a tense moment and letting it build and build into the orchestra until you have your shock moment or misleading us with a little melody [cute clip overlaid] that might make us think that things are just fine and plodding along and suddenly wham something happens because the melody was misleading us into thinking that nothing was going to happen, and/or straccato strings providing energy in a way, brass and horns with blustery fanfares which give us a sense of heroism.
CB-A: Movie music not only creates and manipulates mood, it's there to accentuate actions.
DE: You're in a scene where you've already decided that there's twenty things that the music has to catch as you're seeing it. [talks fast with Pee Wee's Big Adventure music in background] A door slams, a bicycle hits the street and the music's gotta do something, then it takes off, and it's gotta take off, and then it's going to slam into something else and the music's got to stop and there's got to be like a tensiontensiontension, and boom! something's going to go off, and then something's going to fall, and then... you want to catch all of that with the music.
CB-A: Elfman, like every working composer, has his own process for writing film music. But it all starts with watching a rough cut of the film, and then being able to grab at a musical idea whenever and wherever it strikes.
[Batman main title plays in background]
DE: Tim flew me out to the Batman set in London, then I'm on a 747 on the way home. And.. the theme that became Batman's theme, suddenly starts playing in my head. I mean it played itself out as clearly as if it were playing in the theatre. So I got a tape recorder, that I learned never to travel without, and I ran into the bathroom. And I'm trying to lay it out in a way that'll make sense to me later, but 747s are really loud, and the bathrooms in particular are really loud, and I can't just sit there in my seat and start singing - you know, I'll be the crazy guy on the plane - so I'm running to the bathroom over and over and over again. Now the stewardess is getting nervous - "Sir, are you okay?" - "Oh yeahyeahyeah, I'm fine." - "Are you sick? Is there anything we can get you?" - "Nono, I'm fine." And now I can see them talking to each other, and it's like, obviously this guy is a junkie. What's he doing? Is he shooting up? What is he doing? He's, like, been in the - he says he's not sick - every ten minutes. And I'm going - I'm trying to lay it out like.. [whispers] "so, a snare drum, celli, bum, bum-ti-bum, bumbumbumbuum, bumbumbumbuum, bumbumbumbuum", and I'm trying to lay [it all out] in pitch, and I'm going, "French horns bu-bu-buuuuu bububububububububu-dunk, bubububuum" and obviously what I'm singing in the tape recorder is all meant to enable me to remember that piece of music, because I know that I'm going to land and I'll forget it because they're going to play landing music when they hit the floor, and it's going to erase everything. They're going to play a piece of muzak when they hit the tarmack and it's going to be like a Danny Elfman brain eraser, and then I'll be going home - "what was I thinking?" It's going to become that fish that got away. So I get home and I turn on my tape recorder and mainly what I'm hearing is "kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk" - just an enormous roar, and a little bit in the background [muffled] "bwwwww" and my first couple of times through I'm going "it's gone! I can't get a sense of.. what was.." And then I listened to it about 10 more times and it was just enough - and then it came back, the whole thing just came back into my head. And I was at the piano, and I got the whole thing down, and that became the main titles to Batman.
CB-A: Back in the day, the composer would have to sit down at the piano and play the theme he'd created for the director. But these days composers use a sequencer: a keyboard synthsizer connected to a computer program that can mock up the sound of an entire orchestra, AND play precisely to film images on a computer monitor.
DE: It's a great tool because the director can actually sit there and go, "oh yeah, that sounds very exciting, I like that" or "no, I don't like that part" before you're in front of an orchestra. You can kindof work it out with them.
[Background music: from Big Fish]
CB-A: Like his music, Danny Elfman's home in Los Angeles reflects his baroque sensibilities. There's a complete monkey skeleton in the living room on the coffee table. Actual shrunken human heads sit a-top the baby grand. Walk downstairs to his basement studio and you're greeted by an assortment of antique prosthetic legs, arms and hands. The studio itself is draped in red velvet and looks a little like the lair of the Phantom of the Opera, with Elfman playing the role of the mad genius facing an alter of keyboards, monitors and mixing consoles. He's currently working on the score of a new live-action version of the classic Charlotte's Web.
[Background music: from Charlotte's Web, in progress. Danny describes the scene as the music progresses]
DE: So, I'm playing her theme for the first time but I'm using piano's, I'm using celestes and I'm using bells because we're seeing her legs movingmovingmovingmovingmoving. She's weavingweavingweaving and there is a loose strand of web. Now I'm telling the audience that that means something. She has an idea. ... Now I'm getting more emphatic, and I'm playing her theme for the first time full-out that we're going to hear. Now she's beginning to fly around and she's got a plan. We don't know what it is yet. She's cutting and snipping, I'm giving emphasis to big cuts and big snips to help give it a little more - er - power to the movements that she's doing. And then finally we pan back ... And we see a moon against the web, and we don't yet know what she's done. [music stops]. This is all synthsizers you're hearing, and in a week this'll all be played again with a real orchestra, and sound much better. But yet this is close enough for the director to sit there with me, listen to the piece, and we could talk through the whole thing, work out all the beats. And by the way, my goal, I should add, with these mock-ups, is that there's as little disagreement in front of a 90-piece orchestra as there possibly can be, because with that many players you don't want to be arguing about how this hits and how that hits and if this is big enough or if this is strong enough or that should get smaller. You hopefully want to have all that here, in a room, just me and a director and a bunch of synthesizers which aren't running on the union clock, costing a fortune every hour.
CB-A: You may not have heard of Harry Gregson-Williams or James Newton Howard but they're among an elite group of maybe 15 guys who write the lion's share of all big budget film scores. And yes, I did say guys. The vast majority of studio film composers are men. While there are no monogomous relationships, many composers are known for their work with particular directors. In his 20 year film composing career Danny Elfman has worked with director Tim Burton on at least ten films. One reason for these kinds of collaborations is a shared creative sensibility and a kind of shorthand that develops between the director and the composer. Another is simply knowing what to expect.
DE: There's certain things that go along with being a composer that probably most composers have to deal with, I'm guessing. One of them is the extremely idiosyncratic nature of directors and that fact that you're going to have to deal with all their insecurities. And most directors are understandably so. They've been working for a year to two years of their life on this one thing and here they are in the eleventh hour and it's almost done, and now they're getting bombarded with outside input that they never had from a studio, from different people, and worst of all from a dozen or a couple of dozen people out of a preview audience who've been elected to become film critics.
CB-A: The larger a film's budget, the more nervous a studio can get. The guys in suits start trusting the artist less and focus groups more. And that can play hell with a composer's work day.
DE: A lot of scores are getting thrown out more and more these days, you know, when a movie runs into a bit of trouble [and] there's not much else he can do. You can throw out music and try putting in other music. "Audiences.. we're not getting the numbers high enough. What can we do? We can't throw anything else out - throw out the music." And all too frequently the music ends up being the target because there is no other target . Once again, there are only two things he can change by the time they're previewing the movie: you can re-edit or you can change the score.
CB-A: One of a composer's other biggest nightmares is when a director falls in love with the music they've used before the score was written.
DE: You know, every movie, when it starts previewing - right when a composer's coming on the movie's done, they've started to edit and preview - they're putting in a temp score, which means they have to put in music to preview for an audience. And the director is going to be living with this temp score from anything between 3 and maybe 6 months. Now some directors are going to get hopelessly attatched to that temp score and it's going to prove to be a major problem, and I know that the project is going to become a real bitch.
CB-A: Composers of major film scores make somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred to two hundred thousand dollars a score. Directors are paying for a composer's particular sound and sensibility, but it's not just artistry that earns them the big bucks, it's grace under fire. Since they almost always begin work after a film is shot it's a matter of "be a genius - a little faster, would ya".
DE: We're in a pressure-cooker. We're dealing with a lot of hysteria often - sometimes it's a virtual battlefield between producers and studios and directors and you're in the middle of it - and you have to be able to deliver the goods. You can't implode, you can't collapse and you can't even conceive of not delivering. So all of us have the same thing in common - if we've succeeded we've shown under fire (under battle) that we can deliver regardless of the pressure: if we say we're going to deliver a score we're going to deliver a score.
CB-A: Director idiosyncracies, studio insecurities and the ticking clock all make the process of composing music for film an utter crap-shoot.
DE: You never know when you start on a film is this going to be a pleasurable project or is it literally going to make you want to kill yourself, y'know, and I've been on both. I've been on movies that I come out of it and go, "That was really hard work but it was so enjoyable and fulfilling," and I've been on movies where I've had to tell my wife to hide the ammo, keep sharp objects away from me and take the keys from my car because if I don't kill myself I'm going to go on a tri-state killing spree and take down twelve other people.
CB-A: I'm going to go into the park at night with piano wire and people are going to get hurt.
DE: Exactly, y'know, because this director is going to make me insane.
CB-A: But perhaps the biggest challenge isn't with those composing today. It's with those who are already .. de-composed.
DE: I was err.. driving home, listening to the classical music channel and I'm hearing a piece of music...
[background: excerpt from Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony*]
.. I didn't recognise and I think to myself, "Oh my God. What movie is this from? This is the most amazing piece of film music I've ever heard." And I thought it had to be film music because it was starting and stopping and lunging about. And I sat outside my house and I can't go into the house, I have to wait until the end of the piece and find out who did it. And I'm already rolling this around in my head: you know, if this is one of my contemporaries, I quit right now because I'll never be able to write a score like this. Of course it was Shostakovich.
CB-A: Of course as one of Russia's most famous pre-cinema composers** Dmitri Shostakovich only had to deal with wannabe tyrants like Joseph Stalin. Not the truly power-mad, like Hollywood's directors. Check out the September 14th issue of Daily Variety for an in-depth profile of Danny Elfman. A very special thanks to Rob Noakes and the amazing online library for sound effects and music used in our piece.
* Elfman does not reference this piece in particular. Although I have not yet found evidence for it, I had thought he mentioned a distinct work in another interview (perhaps even by Prokofiev).
** This is factually incorrect. Shostakovich wrote film music.
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