Interviews

Relative Values: Elmer and Emilie Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein, composer of film music, and Emilie, his daughter, orchestrator

Elmer Bernstein, 80, has scored over 200 films and TV programmes. Perhaps best known for his music for The Magnificent Seven, he received an Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie, plus 13 nominations, and has a star on Hollywood Boulevard. On October 9 he conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an 80th birthday celebration concert of his music at the Albert Hall. He lives in Santa Barbara with his English wife, Eve. They have two daughters: Emilie, 34, and Elizabeth, 31. Elmer has two sons, Gregory and Peter, from his first marriage. Emilie is her father’s orchestrator and sings in her own band, Eve’s Garden, with her husband, Lucas Eskin, a film editor. They live in Los Angeles with their daughter, Castelle, 2. 

ELMER: Growing up in New York, the only child of Ukrainian immigrants, I always had faith that I would be taken care of. I think Emilie feels that way too. She was an amazing child. Her first complete sentence was: ‘I can do it myself.’ That pretty much sums her up – an independent, free spirit. She did well in school, made close friends, and never had a boyfriend we didn’t want in the house. Now she has a great marriage and a beautiful daughter. Emilie and her husband, Lucas, knew each other in high school. He was enamoured of her then and used to leave flowers on her car, but she wasn’t having any of it. Years later, they met again at a party.

Was I a better father third time round? Emilie was born when I was well established. I was struggling when my older son was born. By the time my second son arrived, those insecurities were behind me. But my boys are a product of a divorce; Emilie and her sister had a different experience, in a loving, tiny family.

We always used to know when Emilie was awake because she would climb onto her rocking horse and we’d hear the springs going up and down. When the girls were small, I bought a camper van and took them on extensive trips across the United States. Then, in Malibu, we lived on a ranch surrounded by horses, goats, peacocks and guinea fowl. And Emilie loved horse-riding. Sometimes I’d be so anxious that I could barely watch, but she rode brilliantly in competitions and she had a wall full of coloured ribbons. I’ve always been proud of her bravery. She only gave up riding when she became a mother.

In the house, she was surrounded by music. She loved the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, so I wrote a special arrangement of the music for her to play. In college, she studied media composition. She wrote pieces which I thought were very interesting and different. But she decided not to continue in that direction. I recently asked her why. She told me she’d seen what it was like to be in the firing line and didn’t want that pressure.

When she started working with me, 10 years ago, bit by bit I let her write film cues.We only disagreed once. She made a critical comment about one of my scores in the public arena. I told her she mustn’t do that, and she burst into tears. I want orchestrators to be creative and use their imagination, but they have to understand it’s about judgments – not disagreements. I have the same deal with her as with every orchestrator. But she has a great advantage. Apart from our artistic empathy, she knows what my emotional reaction will be to any situation, and how I’ll react to particular instruments in the score. Part of Emilie’s job description is to be in the control room when I’m outside conducting the orchestra. Apart from making decisions and recommendations about particular tapings, she has to maintain order – stop people coming in and out or talking. The first time she had to do this was on the film Cape Fear. Martin Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, were in the control room. And my wife was there too – fearful for Emilie. I never thought Emilie would have a problem, and of course she carried it off with her usual bravery.

It’s fascinating the way she has formed her rock group. Creatively she’s very fulfilled writing songs for her band. She has a shyness about her, and it’s absolutely thrilling to watch her, and quite a shock to see her transformation on stage. The kids in Los Angeles say: ‘Emilie’s really out there, Elmer.’ And she is. Emilie’s my window on their world.

Emilie: Every time I hear Daddy’s film music I’m amazed at how exciting and brilliant it sounds. How much fun it is, the way it moves the film along. Fame and celebrity aren’t important to him. Daddy kept his Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie tucked away on a bathroom shelf. My sister and I used to wish he’d put it in the foyer of our house. I remember once, a film director came round boasting: ‘I told my girls I’d get to see an Oscar today.’ That was definitely not an okay thing to say to Daddy! My father has always been a huge fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, so it was probably just as an excuse that he used to take me to their games. But I remember it as our special time, because it was just the two of us. A lot of my early memories are of him going away to work on films, and then of my sister and me rushing out of the house to welcome him home.

Until we were 16, my sister and I had to learn music. And for a long time I resented it. Daddy had started out as a concert pianist – I knew I was never going to be as good as he was. I resisted doing music when I first went to college, but in my second year I found myself in the music department – and it felt like being home. I was conscious of not wanting to let people know who my father was, but one day a teacher came by my desk, looked at what I’d done – I’d written parallel fifths, very frowned upon in composition – and told me: ‘Your daddy wouldn’t do that kind of thing.’ So people obviously knew. Music is completely natural for Daddy. It’s like breathing. When we were children, his studio was separate from the rest of the house, and though sometimes you could tell part of his brain was immersed in the music he was composing, we never had to tiptoe around or felt he was too preoccupied to talk.

Though my father’s definitely the maestro when it comes to the family schedules revolving around his work, he doesn’t demand attention or make extravagant gestures. On the rare occasion when he was angry, he could be extremely scary, but for the most part he was very cool with me and my sister. Discipline was largely left to my mother. Daddy was the good guy.We were brought up to find something to do which we loved, which hopefully we’d be good at, and from which we’d make some money. But the being good and making money were not important – lighting up your life was what mattered.

My parents didn’t have Hollywood friends, but sometimes we’d be invited to a director’s house – and that’s how I learnt that my father was famous. But only recently have I understood what that means. In the past couple of years ‘Elmer Bernstein’ has been honoured with several lifetime-achievement awards and retrospectives. And when other people speak about him, I feel enormous pride at how much a part of movie history he is. I don’t think he’s even aware of how much he has contributed to the world and how his music has really touched people.

Daddy’s always been interested in doing new things. When I was in high school, he’d been working on a lot of comedy films, which he felt were getting more and more stupid, so he stopped composing for a while. It was a difficult time for him. After my graduation, I didn’t have a plan of what to do. Then he said: ‘You can always come and work with me.’ Orchestrating is decorating what’s been written – for instance, I can add in instruments. The deal has been that my father gives me a sketch of what he’s written and I can add in anything I want – though he reserves the right to remove it. He’s incredibly trusting. He never looks over my shoulder.

I think people in the studio accept me, though it’s possible the musicians might feel a bit suspicious because I’m Elmer Bernstein’s daughter. But I’ve felt accepted, because once we start work we have a totally professional working relationship. I don’t want to compose film scores. I love writing songs, singing in clubs and doing my own thing. My father loves that too. In some ways, doing his own thing is conducting. I think now he enjoys that even more than composing.

My father worked in movies during much kinder times – when people were more trusted to do their jobs. Now it feels like every moment you’re being ridden by executive decisions. Everything’s about money. It’s not about the music.

It’s hard to believe that Daddy is 80. To us he has always been young, with unbelievable energy. I can’t imagine him not working. Sometimes my mom wishes he would retire and just hang out with her. But it’s never going to happen.

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