This collection of interviews with Hollywood composers offers the most intimate look ever at the process of writing music for the movies. From getting started in the business to recording the soundtrack, from choosing a musical style to collaborating with directors, including Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam, Kenneth Branagh, and Ken Russell, from learning to deal with editing to writing with time-sensitive precision, the leading practitioners in the field share their views on one of the most important and least understood aspects of filmmaking: the motion picture art that's heard but not seen.
About the Author
David Morgan is the author of Monty Python Speaks! (Spike, 1999) and editor of Sundancing (Spike, 2000). He has written on film production and media issues for a variety of publications. Mr. Morgan lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
How would you describe the best or most satisfying use of music in a film?
DAVID SHIRE (All the President's Men, The Conversation): Film music is so often an art of juxtaposition. When the music is more about subtext ' adding an element that isn't on the screen ' that's the most satisfying. The most simple-minded scoring is what you get in most B-movies and bad television, where they want happy scenes made as happy as possible, love scenes made as loving as possible, and action scenes made as fast and furious as possible. It's not as creative, and it doesn't leave much room for your imagination, except to try to find some new way to write the same old music for the three-hundredth time. And usually they just want the same old music anyway, a generic, same old score that isn't going to tax anybody. I've had scores thrown out because I did a subtext score and they wanted something vanilla, right down the mainstream. You struggle and struggle, and they throw things away, and then I'd hear the score they finally put on the movie and I'd think, "I could have written that with my hands tied behind my back."
The fun is when the score can find an element that weaves into the whole mix ' if there's a love scene, instead of making it just more loving, there's an underlying tension. So the melody is saying "love" but there's something underneath that's saying, "Wait a minute, there's something else going on here." There's an ambiguity about it.
DAVID RAKSIN (Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful): There are times when music is at its best when it's saying what you can see in a different way, but actually the whole business of amplifying something that you cant see, [that] you wouldn't otherwise know, is the really defining phrase, and music can do that.
ELMER BERNSTEIN (The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven): What you're describing is really a very good use of film music: doing things which are not totally explicit on the screen, to get behind and inside the character, so to speak. If you have an opportunity to do that, I think that's very effective.
Its real significance is, what does music do in the film? That's what it was composed for. If you're writing a piece for film, the film is the spine of the music, because if the music is properly done for the film, the film is the form. Whereas if you'r writing music on its own, it becomes a different kind of spine, a tighter form that stands on its own. That's why, generally speaking, if you take symphonic music (like Beethoven symphonies or a Bach fugue), that doesn't work well in a film, because the music has so much form of its own that the music stands away from the film, not in the film.
Of course you can change the shape of the film to suit the music; for instance, in Fantasia, the Bach "Toccata and Fugue" is fine, but that sequence was designed around the music ' I don't want to be accused of citing it as a great artwork; what I'm simply saying is if you have music that has tremendous internal strength then you have to design the film around the music .
I've done a lot of films for Ray and Charles Eames that were little films, one a thirteen-minute film called Toccata for Toy Trains. In that instance I wrote a divertissement first and then the film was shot to the music ' So the music in that case stands very easily on its own, because it was composed beforehand.
PATRICK DOYLE (Henry V, Sense and Sensibility): I suppose film music has to be acceptable instantly because it's an instant medium and people have to instantly get ideas. it's not very often films are revisited in the same way that a symphony or a poem or a great piece of literature is; it's very instantaneous, and I try to deliver the instantaneous but to give it a longevity so that it will last through time.
What are your own standards for what makes a successful piece of film music?
DOYLE: Well, first of all it should totally serve the picture. It should always sound like good music, it should always in the end have a structure to it. But basically it should always be musical, and listenable. And it should be able to, away from the picture, conjure up the same sort of feelings and images that it was meant to at hand.
DeadAgain had so many elements: it had a very strong, romantic feel; it had a lost, melancholy feel; it had the danger of a psychopath; and it had a retrospective quality, because it was harking back to a golden era of Hollywood. All of the elements hopefully still come over when one listens to the music, even after the film's gone.
Maybe the music should be providing something which is not on the screen, or it should be playing against what's on the screen ' in that case it could be misleading [when heard away from the film], but if one has seen the picture then one knows the intention behind it. That contradicts itself because it may give the listener an idea of what point in the picture it was representing when in fact it would be a red herring.
ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL (Drugstore Cowboy, Heat): When Bernard Herrmann in Psycho took the sound of a screetchy bird and sort of morphed it into what it might feel like to be stabbed, the music took on a better, more significant role than a sound effect would have in that scene, in the sense that when you abstract something you create a different reality you've created something more significant because you've entered into a state of dreams. And when you enter into a dream state, things become more and more long-lasting. It's not just hearing a tire screetch, but to hear an orchestration of how that tire screetch makes you feel, is one step into the world of art and not just craft.
MYCHAEL DANNA (The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm): The role of music is to enlighten the audience about the film from a sonic perspective, and to bring some kind of sonic understanding of the theme of the film.