Cynthia Millar: Elmer Bernstein’s vigour, absolutely undiminished energy and undimmed spirit have inspired countless musicians and film-makers. He turned 80 this year but none of us really believe it. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of working with him or who have never met him, may I introduce Elmer Bernstein.
CM: We have done this a lot but never on such a formal occasion. I’d like to start by talking about your early years. Do you feel that your experiences as a child and the influence of your parents had a big influence on your career?
Elmer Bernstein: Well, I think it had just about everything to do with it. On a scale of ten, the best thing I could have been as far as my parents were concerned was anything in the arts. I was encouraged to be a painter to begin with. I studied modern dancing and appeared in dance recitals. I was a child actor and appeared on Broadway as a child actor.
CM: As Caliban… ?
EB: Caliban in The Tempest, right. That was 10. Everything fell from there to zero. They wouldn’t have wanted me to be a lawyer, a doctor or, heaven forbid, anything in the military. So that had a great influence. Not only because that’s what they wanted but also because of the kind of people they surrounded themselves with. They surrounded themselves with Greenwich Village drunken poets and painters. It was not uncommon for me to find a poet at the foot of my bed reading to me at midnight from the Bible.
CM: Would you go further and say that their own journey to America made time more precious and they didn’t want you to idle your time away?
EB: Yes. My parents were very young when I was born. My mother was barely 20. She was still out partying. My grandparents had a great deal with caring for me. But, by the time I was four and I was beginning to read, my mother started taking an interest in me. When she had an idea that I might have some talent, she got really interested in me. She used to practise with me at the piano. It wasn’t onerous. It was perfectly fine.
CM: Did it make a difference being an only child?
EB: Yes. I got all their attention and all their support and all their love.
CM: Did that make you more independent?
EB: Ultimately it did. You wouldn’t think it would but my parents were really balanced about that. When it came time for me to be out of the house and out on my own they were very supportive.
CM: You must have spent most of your time with adults?
EB: I spent my entire time with adults. I wasn’t particularly good with my peers. I went on every vacation they ever took. I was with them every summer. My father was a school teacher and so we used to have every summer off. We used to go to Woodstock, New York every summer. We were very bonded as a unit.
CM: No vacation from practising?
EB: No. But that was fine. I don’t know how I felt about it when I was 10 or 11. No, I can actually. We lived in Paris for a year in 1933. I remember enjoying the idea of finding a piano teacher in Paris. Certainly by the time that I was 14, I was pretty sure that I wanted music to be my life.
CM: Do you remember what pieces of music you used to enjoy?
EB: I enjoyed the little Bach pieces, the Anna Magdalena Notebook.
CM: Do you suppose that your musical tastes as a pianist had an impact later on the kind of pieces you came to write?
EB: No, my influences later on were rather different. I inherited Bach from my father. I remember being literally dragged along when I was 10 to see a performance of St Matthew Passion. Ten is a rather tender age for that sort of thing but I was intrigued by it. I was brought up by Bach. I think my orchestral influences somewhat later are rather different.
CM: And you had an aunt who took you to Wagner.
EB: Oh yes. I had an aunt who was a member of the Wagner Society in New York. She took me to the Metropolitan opera when I was about 12. It was Die WalkŸre. I remember distinctly the experience. She was standing throughout it. I might tell you I have never seen that opera again! In the second act there is an interminable scene with two singers. I remember one singer was on one side of the stage and one was on the other. They never related to each other. As a child I just saw these two people shouting at each other and I didn’t know what it was all about. I must say that I didn’t go to another opera for about 10 years.
CM: That European sensibility is very strong with you. Is that partly to do with your parents having come from Europe?
EB: My parents were from Middle Europe – basically from the Ukraine and what is now Belarus. So, yeah, my sensibilities were Middle European sensibilities. My grandmother used to sing songs to me from her Jewish background but they were Middle European songs, basically, and that’s what I heard a lot of as a child.
CM: You were first set towards being a concert pianist. But you were also improvising a lot, weren’t you. Tell us that famous story where your music teacher took you to see Aaron Copland.
EB: I was always fooling around on the piano. I did my practise, like a good kid, but I was sort of restless. I was creating things in my head basically. So, I would improvise things. My piano teacher, who was called Henrietta Michelson, instead of disciplining me and saying, “Why don’t you practise your arpeggios and scales?” became interested in this improvisation. She took me to see this young rising star, Aaron Copland, who must have been barely 30 at the time. She said, “Play for him.” I had written a little A minor waltz. I can still remember the first few bars of it. I sat down and played for him and she said to Copland, “Does this child have any talent?” To which he responded, “I don’t know. Let’s give him some lessons and find out.”
CM: A good response.
EB: Well, it was an intelligent response.
CM: Later you studied with Stefan Volpe. You did serious compositional training. You must have had a very different experience to film composers starting today.
EB: I was always very interested in composition. At that point in my life, I really wanted to be a concert pianist. I gave my first recital in New York City aged 15. That’s what I really intended to do. But, on the other hand, I wanted to compose music myself. So I kept taking composition lessons. I studied with Aaron Copland, then Roger Sessions and ultimately with Stefan Volpe, who was probably the most influential of all my teachers.
CM: When you had your first chance to write music, were you alarmed or did you feel ready?
EB: Before I’m through, I hope there will be some day when I’m ready.
I didn’t think in those terms. I thought in terms of the enthusiasm of doing it. I didn’t think about whether I was ready.
CM: Can you tell us about the first time you had to write music, for that radio show?
EB: I gave my first concert when I was 15. By the time I was in my 20s an event known as the second world war intervened. I went into the Army Air Corps, although I never flew. I was put into special services. This had to do with performance and propaganda, those sorts of things. I was brought to this unit in New York City to write arrangements of American folk music because they thought that would be a patriotic thing to do.
Very little was known about American folk music at the time. It was mostly the product of very leftwing people at the time, of whom I was one. I don’t know why, but that was the way it was. Out of this expertise, I was asked to make these arrangements. It was thrilling because people like Burl Ives, a famous folk singer, had never worked with an orchestra before. I remember doing an arrangement for him for one of his signature songs called The Blue Tail Fly. He came and sang it and we all thought it was rather wonderful. I thought, “That’s great.” It was this really patriotic message.
Anyway, we also did propaganda shows on the radio. There was a particular composer who was responsible for providing music for those kind of shows. One day, he went “over the hill”, which in army parlance means that you have left without permission. Funnily enough, the reason he did it is so like what goes on today. He was angry because a script was late and he was not being given enough time to do his job. The conductor knew that I knew something about composition and so he called me into his office and said, “Lothar has gone over the hill. We don’t think we have a score for tomorrow’s show. Is there something you can do?” And I was young enough to say yes.
Well, I had been trained as a composer but I had never done anything like that before. So, they handed me the script and put me in an office. This had to be done overnight because it was going to be rehearsed the next day in New York City. We were, at the time, in Yale University, New Haven. I went into a trance like in Rumpelstiltskin. But somehow or other I wrote something.
The next day we had to go to New York for the orchestra rehearsal. I was scared. I had no idea how it was going to work. I couldn’t attend the rehearsal. I spent the whole time in the men’s room. Finally, it came to an end. Men started to drift into the men’s room. No one said anything horrible. It wasn’t a disaster. It was OK. From then on, I would do the occasional score. I thought it was the most thrilling thing. It was instant. You made the music and they played it right away to millions of people. I found it thrilling.
CM: From there to your first film score, was that an awkward journey or a lucky chance?
EB: It was a strange trip, actually. When I left the army, I would have liked to have done this kind of work. I made some feeble attempts but they weren’t interested in me. It was one thing for the Air Corps to pay me to do this but quite another for a major broadcaster to be interested. And they weren’t. So I went back to concertising. I gave concerts, mainly on the East Coast.
About two or three years after I left the army, a friend of mine had written a novel called The Hero. It was about the misuse of student athletes at collegiate level. It was made into a movie called The Hero. By a lucky coincidence, he had also written a show for the United Nations radio arm called Sometime Before Morning. It is really painful to think that this show, written in 1948, was about the achievement of peace in Israel. It makes you want to stop and think. It was a show celebrating that and I wrote the music for it.
By a really lucky coincidence, and I have been very lucky throughout my career, the magazine Variety picked up this score and gave it a really nice review. That was very unusual in those days. The producer of the show happened to be in town and the writer spoke to him. The producer was called Sidney Buckman, who was also vice-president of Columbia Pictures. He convinced him to give me the chance to write the music for this film.
CM: You were still based on the East Coast. Did you not try to live out a bicoastal existence?
EB: Yes, I did. I went out to do this film in the fall of 1950. I did not like the West Coast at all at first look. I was a real New Yorker – a city laid out on a grid. If streets did not go straight and intersect at 90 degree angles I didn’t understand it at all. I really had a typically ignorant New York reaction to it. I drove straight back once filming was finished. The second time I went back, I stayed there for good.
CM: It wasn’t easy was it? Filming often got very extended and you got very poor…
EB: Well, that was the first film, Saturday’s Hero. I got out there and they weren’t ready for me. I had no money. We had no money. One day we had 75 cents and a car. We had to decide whether to spend 75 cents on petrol for the car or on breakfast. We decided to put petrol in the car. We took the car to the producer and told him what our plight was. He said, “It’s Friday. I really can’t get to the bank. Would $200 do you for the weekend?” That was five months’ rent!
I said that I thought that would do, you know. Eventually, he advanced me a great deal of money, which he never asked for back.
CM: Was your experience of Hollywood very kind back then? Did people look out for each other more?
EB: Hollywood was a great club. I think it was a difficult place for actors. They were very competitive in the star world. But for those of us involved in the creative side of things it was a great club. We were very interested in each other. All the other composers were very helpful when I first went out there.
CM: When you were first out there, you would actually work on the lot where the film was being made. So, presumably you’d see other composers in the corridors. I guess there was more of a spirit of comradeship.
EB: Definitely. No question. The way that studios were organised, they gave you tremendous support because everything was there. Your orchestrators, your copyists and your orchestra – they were all there. The head of the music department was also a composer. So you had a lot of guides there.
CM: And the head of the music department would have hired you, rather than the producer?
EB: That is basically correct. He was in a sense your boss. If anything went wrong with a producer or director, the head of the music department took the heat. The head of the music department would then talk to you.
CM: The process we do now, the spotting session where we decide where music is going to be in a film, would not have been done with producers and directors in the early 50s?
EB: Not necessarily. More than likely the spotting would be done with the music director or one of his minions. It was not necessarily the film director.
CM: Generally, you had much longer to write?
EB: Not generally, but you did have longer to write.
CM: And the orchestra belonged to the studio, right. So you could take as long as you liked at recording sessions?
EB: You could take a great deal of time, yes. In the Alfred Newman days, he was a great musician at 20th Century Fox, they could take a whole week to do the main titles.
CM: So did the fact that you had a longer amount of time have a bearing on the kind of music you wrote? Did you make more complex music then because you knew that you were able to take the time?
EB: That’s a very interesting question. I’m not sure about the answer. I have to answer for myself. I have always approached every film as an individual. My brief to myself is, “How can I do the best thing for this film?” I don’t really worry about time constraints. That was what I was always concerned with. I didn’t worry about whether I had enough time to make something complex. There are 24 hours in a day and sometimes you use all 24 hours.
CM: Now we look back and call that luxury.
EB: Oh, definitely. Those were the good times.
CM: You are probably the only working composer who was around in the golden age of Hollywood, as it is known.
EB: It’s known as “old”.
CM: Even now on a film lot there is a sense that you are in your own little universe. That must have been a great way to work.
EB: It was a great way to work. In those days, you had to be there. It was your world. It was your club. Your friends were there, your associates were there, your security was there.
CM: And you had the actors and actresses there as well. You all used to hang around together. That doesn’t happen now because composers come in so much later in the process.
EB: It’s interesting that you should say that. I hadn’t thought of it like that. But when you stop to think about it, so many films today where we don’t have that kind of contact are films about alienation. About alienated feelings. We are much more alienated from our colleagues nowadays.
CM: And yet the film-makers are much more interested in being part of our process nowadays. Or maybe I am getting a bit ahead of myself.
EB: I think you are getting a bit ahead of yourself. Today you have something like A Film by Joe Harry. That is patently asinine and ridiculous.
CM: Take a film like View From Pompey’s Head. You could have met Dana Wynter and had lunch with her while you were also scoring the scenes in her movie. It’s much more like working in the theatre, more homogenous.
EB: You would take your inspiration from those surroundings. You were surrounded by creative people and actors.
CM: Just when things were going well, politics intervened.
EB: I made my way on to a grey list, a black list even. That’s something I’m very proud of, actually.
CM: If you were on a grey list, did that mean you could not work?
EB: Let me explain very simply. In the early days of the so-called black list, it was promoted by corrupt politicians like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. They made their living doing this kind of thing. At the very beginning, just the idea that you might be somebody left of centre was enough to get you blacklisted. By the time I was greylisted they made a distinction. If they thought that you had leftwing sympathies but were not a card-carrying member of the communist party, they greylisted you. If they thought you were a card-carrying member, you were blacklisted.
By the time I was caught, McCarthy had already been censured by the Senate. I was a beneficiary of this because I was not a card-carrying member. I was able to get through that without it ending my whole career. At the same time I was fingered, I was working for Cecil B DeMille. He was famously anticommunist. He was president of an organisation called the Motion Pictures Alliance which was devoted to keeping communist propaganda out of the movies. DeMille called me down to his office and said, “I am going to ask you a question. I know it’s not my constitutional right to do so but I am going to ask you anyway. Are you a member of the communist party?” I said, “No, I’m not.” He looked at me for a full 10 seconds. He made a decision in his head to believe what I’d said but then delivered a lecture to me. He said, “Be careful of these people. They only want to use you.” But he kept me on the set. That was a very important step in saving me.
EB: Victor Young had been hired to write the score for the dances of The Ten Commandments but he became very ill. You were then hired to write the score. But at the same time you’d written The Man with the Golden Arm score.
EB: It couldn’t have been more different. The Man with the Golden Arm was a jazz-based score. When I had done that in a hiatus while they were editing The Ten Commandments, de Mille called me down to the office. He said he’d listened to The Man with the Golden Arm at home that night. I was afraid that he was going to say that. He said, “It’s very good. But don’t do anything like that in The Ten Commandments.”
The best de Mille story was the exodus one in The Ten Commandments. Working with de Mille was probably the most thrilling and exhilarating thing I have done in Hollywood. It was just the thrill of doing it. De Mille was very exacting. I would play everything for him on the piano. Because I was a concert pianist I could play everything very elaborately. But he would want me to play it on one finger so that he could hear the tune. He sometimes disliked things very heartily.
CM: Wouldn’t he hear a motif and want you to play it in different ways?
EB: He was a Wagnerian. He was a great believer in the leitmotif. He thought that every character should have their own motif and when they were on screen you would play it. That was the brief. The best story was the exodus scene in the Ten Commandments. Moses brings his staff down on the ground and the Hebrews march off. But they weren’t Hebrews in the film. They were Hebrews being played by members of the Egyptian army.
We were then on good terms with Egypt. At least, de Mille was. He got these 5,000 troops to act in this scene. They marched out very slowly. I had written a ponderous quasi-Hebraic anthem. De Mille listened to it, saw it and did not like it all. As a matter of fact, he hated it. I said, “Well, what’s the matter with it?” He said it was too slow. I said, “I’m just reflecting what I see on the screen. This ponderous movement of thousands of people.” He said, “That’s the trouble with it. It’s too slow. I hate it.” I said, “Won’t it seem strange if I write something really fast?” He said, “Trust me, it works.” And he was right. I learned a great lesson with that. I said, “Like what?” He said, “Something like Onward Christian Soldiers.”
I thought, well this is the most ecumenical thing I’ve ever heard of. I said “5,000 Hebrews being played by members of the Egyptian army marching on to Onward Christian Soldiers.”
But he was right. You can make something seem more energised than it really is.
CM: I know you’ve talked about that in relation to The Magnificent Seven.
EB: I used it when I came to The Magnificent Seven. I like the film. But if you watch it without music it is slow, strangely enough. It develops very slowly. I learned my lesson from de Mille. I thought, “I’m going to infuse this film with energy.” And it worked.
CM: Had you any idea when you wrote score for The Man with the Golden Arm how groundbreaking it was going to be?
EB: Not at all. I did realise that if I was going to have screaming jazz on the screen I had better let the director know. I went to the director, Otto Preminger, and said, “I have a kind of odd idea about what I want to do with this score.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “Well, this guy wants to be a jazz drummer. I think this should be a jazz-driven score.” He said, “That’s what you’re here for. If you think that’s what you want to do, do it.”
So I went ahead and did it. And of course the effect on the whole art of film scoring and on the public in general was electrifying. I remember meeting the music director in the lobby of the theatre after the premiere was over. He was one of the few music directors who was not a composer. He was a concert violinist and a great conductor. He came to me with a dazed expression and said, “That’s the greatest score I have ever heard in a movie.” People were in shock. And I had no idea that was going to happen. But I was very happy that it happened.
CM: Did you get the sense after that that you would be asked to do the same score over and over again?
EB: I was very lucky, in the sense that I did not really get pigeonholed. The Man with the Golden Arm preceded The Ten Commandments so, really, no one knew what to make of me. But that was a good thing because eventually, when I wanted to do my first Western, I asked Charlton Heston whether he could plead my cause. He was doing a western called The Big Country. He went and asked his co-star Gregory Peck. Greg said, “Elmer Bernstein? Isn’t he a jazz composer?”
CM: Was it easier to communicate with film-makers then than it is now?
EB: Much easier. I can remember telling you when you first came across to our shores, “Remember, you have no friends here.” It was very different in those days because of the atmosphere there used to be. I can remember complaining during my grey list period when I was reduced to being a rehearsal pianist for Oklahoma. I remember talking to Fred Zimmerman, who was the great director at the time, about my state. The atmosphere was very different.
CM: My guess is that there were more films being made and fewer composers?
EB: Well, no. The style was different. Each film company had its roster of composers under contract. There were relatively few freelance composers. They always kept enough composers under contract to handle their slate of films.
CM: We have been talking a lot recently about Douglas Sirk because of the score for Far From Heaven, which you have just written for Todd Haynes. Frank Skinner, who wrote those scores for Douglas Sirk, would that be his level? Would it be very hard for him to be a Miklos Rozsa? And vice versa? I remember you thinking that Miklos wouldn’t have touched a Douglas Sirk?
EB: They were straighter within the structure of each studio. You had to be careful not to be pigeonholed. At MGM in my day the king was Miklos Rozsa. If there was any important project it went to him. Bronislaw Kaper, another composer, said that he just wanted to get one script of any big film even if it wasn’t any good.
CM: They were decided by directors of music who would have better judgement because they were true composers themselves.
EB: No question.
CM: So, quality was more likely to win out. You did have a problem later on, after you had done a run of comedies. You did get fed up.
EB: Well, we should talk about how I got involved in the comedies in the first place. It was very strange. Early in my career I had done comedies but they didn’t stick. I had tried very hard not to get pigeonholed. In fact, I won my Academy Award for a comedy, for Thoroughly Modern Millie. But in 1977 I had a call from John Landis. I knew him as a childhood friend of my son Peter. My wife and I remember taking them to see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. John called me up and said he would like me to take a look at a film he had just done. I said, “Sure. What is it?” He said, “It’s called Animal House.”
I said, “What is it about?” He started to tell me. I said, “Why me, John?” He said, “Well, I’ve got an idea about this film. If you don’t want to do it, I would like you to look at it and help me decide what to do about the music.”
So I went and looked at this film. It was rough cut at the time and ran for three hours. It was hysterically funny. I said, “Well, John. It’s very funny. But I still don’t see where I fit into all this.” He said, “I have an idea how I’d like this film to be scored. I would like you to score this film as if it were a drama. Score these scenes as if they were drama without any reference to funny sounds and funny music, anything like that.” I said, “Well, that’s a good idea.” And so I agreed to do it.
Of course, the effect is hysterical. If you score funny scenes seriously they are much funnier, so long as they are funny to begin with. It set a trend on how to score comedies. Animal House was the most successful comedy of one summer. Meatballs was the most successful film of the summer after. And Airplane! was the most successful comedy of the summer after. So I was in trouble. I kept going with it through to Ghostbusters. But when I was asked to do the Ghostbusters sequel, I knew it was time to leave. I decided that I wouldn’t do any more comedies.
CM: There was a hiatus at that point, wasn’t there?
EB: Things got quiet, yeah. One of the things that happens in the business is that success is a very strange thing in that if you are involved in something very successful the next person wants you to repeat it.
CM: You had a wish to go back to drama. And your wish came true with My Left Foot.
EB: I had formed a friendship with an Irish producer called Noel Pearson. He was a theatrical producer but I had always said to him, “One day you’ll do a movie and I want to do the score for it.” His first film was My Left Foot. I did him a favour and he did me a favour. He got me out of the comedy world into the real world.
CM: You have had some very important relationships with directors.
EB: I guess we should talk about my relationship with the Pakula/Mulligan team. Alan Pakula had not directed at that point, he was a producer. Robert Mulligan was the director. I first met Alan after The Ten Commandments. He was a kind of dogsbody around Paramount at that point. We just met and became friends. We used to do the three martini lunches in those days and stagger back at around 3.30 to the studio.
I said to him, “One day you’re going to do a movie and I’ll do the score.” And the next thing I know, he’s formed a partnership with Robert Mulligan. They did a film called Fear Strikes Out with Anthony Perkins. They then did a film called Love with the Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen. And ultimately they did To Kill a Mockingbird, which was their crowning glory. That was a long relationship. There were other films I did for them which we don’t have to talk about.
CM: Did they work as a partnership when you were deciding on the character of the music?
EB: We would talk about it a lot. We were personal friends. They would come to my house, have dinner and talk about it. The guiding brain was Alan Pakula. We spent a lot of time talking about the character of the music. But they would never interfere. They would never tell me what kind of music to write. They would never say, “I have to hear what you wrote yesterday,”as happens today. For example, for To Kill a Mockingbird I had six weeks before I wrote a note of any kind. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there like a dummy for six weeks and just couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t figure out what the film was about in a way that was an open door to walk through. Certain things were obvious – it was about racism, the Depression, the South. But the minute you say it’s about the South you get tied up with geography. Do you want banjos and the blues? I didn’t want to get involved in geography.
The question becomes what to get involved in, how to get into these issues. But then I realised that the film was about these issues but seen through the eyes of children. That was the clue. Once I got that, that led to the tentative one finger piano thing that children do when they are trying to pick out a tune. It gave me the bells and musical box effects and harps.
CM: So it is almost as if the music is the characters’ thoughts?
EB: In the best of all possible worlds, yes. Another important relationship was with John Sturges. John loved music. I think he would have happily stripped all the dialogue out of all the movies he ever made. John had a wonderful way of working. The first film I did with him was The Magnificent Seven. We had never met before. My score scared the producer a bit. He backed off a bit. But then John heard it and he loved it. He wouldn’t let me read the script for The Great Escape. He took me into his office and he told me the story. He was a great storyteller. When you waked out of that office, you knew exactly what to do. You knew what to do because of the way he told the story. John loved what he did and was very trusting. Very often he didn’t even come to the recordings. That was a great and inspiring relationship.
We did many films together. We did a film that I adore that wasn’t successful called The Hallelujah Trail. There was a performance by an English actor called Donald Pleasance that was astonishing. Once again, that was John taking me into his office, sitting me down and telling me the story. The other long-term relationship I had was with George Roy Hill. That relationship started in a very funny way. I did a picture called The World of Henry Orient, which he had directed, with Peter Sellers in it. George was always very funny. He was quite taciturn. He was very quiet but you got the feeling that he could be quite dangerous. He came to the recording and stayed through the entire first day. He was fine. He wasn’t over the moon but he was fine with it. During a break on the second day he said to me, “I have a problem with that last cue.” We went back to the studio. All the players were out smoking and drinking, whatever. He starts to edge me towards the piano, and I thought, “My goodness, he’s going to make me sit down at the piano and improvise something.” But no. He sits down at the piano and says, “I was thinking of something like this.”
I said, “Son of a gun! You’re a musician!”
“Not really. I can play Bach preludes.”
We had a great relationship because he was really knowledgeable about music. We would talk about music a lot and did quite a lot of films together. I did Thoroughly Modern Millie with him; Slap Shot, which is a very funny film, and that was a relationship that went on and on and on. He was very lucky that I did not do The Sting, because he had wanted me to do it but I was working on another project, but if I had done The Sting, that would not have been the score. And we would have all been sorry, probably.
In more recent years, I’ve had an ongoing relationship with Martin Scorsese – another situation in which a director knows a great deal about music and knows about what he wants and who you can talk to about music. A classic example of working with Scorsese at his best is The Age of Innocence. Before he shot a foot of film we started talking about character, having read the Edith Warton book. We went over questions like did we want the music to reflect the music? Salon music or concert music? Concert music, he thought. Well, 1870, 1875, who were the leading lights in concert music at that point? It was Tchaikovsky and Brahms. When we talked about Brahms, he wanted to know if there was a place where we could use a sextet, stuff like that. That was a very ideal kind of relationship.
The problem with Scorsese, ultimately, is that he loves pottering around and doing his own scores, as he does in Goodfellas. In The Age of Innocence and Taxi Driver, he allowed the score to be composed through the film. The last film we worked on, The Gangs of New York, ultimately he’s gone back to another way of working when the score becomes a pastiche of various things.
CM: Part of his problem is that when he comes to edit the film, the music written for the scenes no longer fits the way it was designed. Trying to reassemble the puzzle parts is almost impossible. In The Age of Innocence you could give him music to edit to – with themes.
EB: The process was picture perfect because it was writing themes, orchestrating them in a sketchy way. He made a selection of two themes he liked a lot. During the editing process I went off to Ireland and recorded about 12 sequences as he was editing and he put them in the picture.
CM: The rise of electronics has changed things. Schedules being the way they are, electronics have produced a quicker way of producing a score.
EB: Just so I don’t appear to be a complete Luddite, let me say that I experimented with electronics right from the beginning. In the years when I was greylisted and I did magnificent films like Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon, because I had to be inventive, I was electrifying instruments. The first sound you hear in Hawaii is a Moog synthesiser, the first sound you hear in a film called The Caretakers is an electric piano, so I was always interested in it. But only as a colour. Electronic music is boring because if it is purely electronic there is a sameness about it because it is basically inhuman. It’s not being produced by humans, it’s being produced by machines. I know why it’s done, but it’s done for cheapness and it’s made by composers who can’t pick up a pencil and write a note on a piece of paper. Charlatans, in other words.
CM: Can you remember a score that you really loved actually writing a score?
EB: I enjoyed writing all the scores. But, when you talk about loving a score… I certainly didn’t love writing the score for To Killing a Mockingbird. It was very hard. Scores that you love writing sort of write themselves. I probably loved writing the score of The View from Pompey’s Head. I loved writing the score for The Magnificent Seven. I loved the whole western thing. I loved all that energy and I’d stored up so many ideas about western music. I loved writing The Age of Innocence because of the process. I loved writing Far From Heaven because it was a time where I was allowed to write music again.
CM: To be left alone, in peace, and get down to it?
EB: It also has to do with trust. One of the problems I have found in recent years is that a lot of young directors do not trust music. There is no trust. Not all of them, but a lot of them.
CM: Does that come from being afraid of what music might do?
EB: No, that comes from a corruption of auteurism in which some young directors who know they don’t know anything about music and can’t do anything about it get nervous of it.
CM: There is always a problem of putting things into words to a director, isn’t there?
EB: People who write music live in another world – we have to be in another world, it’s where we think. We need the space to be in this other world. If a director confines that space, they aren’t going to get the best out of you. They just aren’t. They have to trust the process. If they can’t trust the process, they are very poor people to work for.
CM: You still love doing it, though?
EB: Absolutely, I loved it. Sometimes you run across someone like Todd Haynes on Far From Heaven who trusted me and gave me the space.
CM: And made a film that one can’t help but respond to.
EB: That always helps.
CM: It doesn’t hurt. Does anyone have any questions?
Q1: Do you think the theremin and the ondes-martenot are overused in scores?
EB: I think it’s horses for courses. You use whatever is appropriate. I think that I have used electronic instruments in my work when I felt it was appropriate. Sometimes it has a particular kind of magic. If that’s useful then, yes, you inject it into a situation. But don’t put it in when it’s not called for. I hope I don’t do that.
Q2: What do you think of electronic instruments in scores?
EB: In the last 15 years, maybe more, I have used one or two synthesisers in every score I’ve written. I think they are wonderful tools. They can do things that no other instrument can do. That’s fine. I think that, if you use an electronic instrument to the exclusion of instruments played by humans then you begin to get problems. I often get asked why film scores all the sound the same today. What people are referring to is electronic scores. If all you are using are electronic scores, it sounds the same. You should use electronic instruments when it is appropriate. James Horner’s score for Field of Dreams is brilliant because he uses electronic instruments to do things that other instruments cannot do. That is my feeling about it. Not as an end in itself. But as an appropriate tool.
Q3: How do you deal with the mock-up process?
EB: This mock-up thing is a curse. There is a great tendency, when you are working on a score, for film-makers to want to hear everything you are doing synthesised before everything else happens. If the film-maker wants to hear every piece you write as you write it all of a sudden you are not composing a score. You are in a situation of “What am I going to play for him tomorrow?” That’s not the way that you compose 60 minutes of music. But I think we are saddled with this curse. I won’t do it. I just won’t. I’m old enough to say no. I will sometimes play things thematically through on the piano. But I am pleased that I am in a position to be able to say that. It is exhausting mocking something up. And also you are playing music for film-makers who are not even qualified to criticise music in the first place. It’s just a waste of time and energy. You can’t do good work that way.
Q4: Where do you think that the kind of colours that you use in western scores come from?
EB: To be perfectly honest about it, a lot of it came from Aaron Copland. I always credit him with having invented American music. I was a boy brought on the streets of lower middle class New York and the west was always a great romantic place with big scenery. I never forget the time I drove across the country to California. I was thrilled by the sense of space. Part of that is reflected in the grand orchestral forces that you use. You are thinking of the space. That had a tremendous influence.
Q5: What do you think of tom tracks?
EB: I will never look at a film that has a tom track. It’s something that’s happened today because there is much less time to finish films. The studios want to get the film out for testing so they put temporary music in the film to test the music with. Of course, this is a tremendous smear on the composer. Likely as not, the film-maker gets used to the music used in the tom track. Cynthia once pointed something out to me – the tom track is actually as much as a smear for the film-maker as it is to the composer. If you believe that music helps a scene and you take a film to be tested with the wrong music, a scene may not work because the wrong music is there. The film-maker would never even know about it.
Q6: What do you feel American music is?
EB: That’s a tough one. Aaron Copland created, in Rodeo, in Billy the Kid, a sensibility based upon American folk music. Although he does not always quote the folk music. This means that we are really taking about Scottish and Irish music, where American folk music came from. You also have to credit Charles Ives for this. They had great rhythmic concerns, certainly Aaron. These concerns were peculiar for him and they are peculiar for American music in general.
Q7: Do you have memories of The Sweet Smell of Success?
EB: I certainly do! I don’t remember how I was brought into The Sweet Smell of Success. I suspect it was because of The Man with the Golden Arm because it was city music. There was also a jazz element to the film. Alexander MacKendrick directed the film and he was savaged by the producers. Burt Lancaster was a pretty scary individual at the time, although he changed later. I can remember watching him chase someone around a projection room. I was therefore left completely on my own. I never discussed the music with anyone. The inspiration came from the picture. I saw a dark energy in the film and that’s where I was going with that.
Q8: How much do actors’ performances affect your scores?
EB: The performances obviously have a great deal to do with what I write. In some instances, they can be very personal. I definitely had an infatuation with Dana Wynter when I was writing the score for The View from Pompey’s Head. I was definitely affected by John Wayne’s very distinct personality in the films I did for him. I was certainly affected by Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. I was very affected by the performance of Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven.
Q9: How do you deal with more intimate pictures where you write for fewer players?
EB: I have been reasonably successful with that, where it’s appropriate. This happened in The Birdman of Alcatraz, where you have lots of small sounds because it all takes place in a jail cell. That was also the case with Far From Heaven. Most of that score was written for nine or 11 players.
Q10: Do you have any plans to write any memoirs, after 60 years in the business?
EB: I have done a very detailed oral history and I have the spine for it. Should probably do it. I enjoy what I do. Every film is a new adventure. The problems are always different. You are adventuring all the time. I am doing a lot of conducting of film music concerts at the moment. I am doing one at the Royal Festival Hall next Wednesday. I am being careful about what I do. I loved doing this last film Far From Heaven. I will continue to do selected films. My specific plan is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going.
CM: On that note, we should say, “Thank you very much” to Elmer for all the music and so much more.