Getting to Know Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein has been working in Hollywood for half a century. Critically acclaimed, and graced with thirteen Academy Award nominations, including one win, he has scored such classic films as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Man With The Golden Arm, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments,Ghostbusters, Stripes and over 200 other projects. Beginning in 2001, Elmer will be celebrating his Golden Anniversary of film scoring, and SoundtrackNet recently had an opportunity to talk with Elmer at his studio in Los Angeles.

Dan Goldwasser: You’re celebrating 50 years of film scoring—a remarkable record by any means. How do you plan on celebrating this memorable occasion?

Elmer Bernstein: Well, what we’ve done is we’ve picked the year that the film was released. Actually, I came to Hollywood in the summer of 1950, but the first picture I scored wasn’t released until 1951. To celebrate it, we’re doing a lot of film music concerts next year in Europe and Japan. Also we’re releasing a number of records. We’re going to release at least the first five albums of the old Film Music Collection

DG: What is that?

EB: That’s something I did many years ago in which I recorded scores that were never recorded. Scores like Max Steiner’s A Summer Place, Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Franz Waxman’s The Silver Chalice, a lot of Miklós Rózsa’s music, and some Tiomkin scores—and some of my things too, like To Kill A Mockingbird. So we’re going to re-release those on my new record label, Amber Records.

DG: You just had your first Amber Records release, the “Music for the Films of Charles & Ray Eames—Volume One”. Do you have any other releases coming up?

EB: We’ll probably go on to a Volume Two of the Eames films, and I’m also going to rerecord other scores for which there has been some demand—like Kings of the Sun,about which I get a lot of mail. So we’ll record and release those scores that people have been requesting.

DG: You mentioned that the concerts next year would be in Europe and Japan. There are no plans for any in the U.S.?

EB: Strangely enough, as yet there are no plans for any of these concerts in the United States. But I’m doing Germany, Spain, and probably England. Curiously enough, I think that film music in general has been more successful in Europe than in this country.

DG: You have gone through different phases of genres. You did the Western (with The Magnificent Seven, True Grit), you tackled Comedy (with Animal House, Stripes,Airplane), then more dramatic scores (with The Age of Innocence, The Rainmaker,etc.). Where do you think you’re going now?

EB: That’s a very difficult question to answer! I think what we ought to talk about is where the business of film music writing is going. Generally speaking, I think that at this stage in my life, and also in terms of where the business is going and the kinds of films that are being made, I think that I probably will cut down to doing one or two films a year. Because quite frankly, I can’t find one or two I’d want to do!

DG: You’re probably at a point where you can be picky about your projects.

EB: Well, there’s that, and I’m not building a career! [Laughs]

DG: Did you ever feel, during those phases, that you were being pigeonholed into the genre?

EB: Oh, definitely—there’s no question! For instance, the comedies. Well, the second film I did was a comedy—Never Wave at a WAC—but I didn’t really do a lot of comedies until I got the Academy Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie. But in 1977, I did the music for Animal House which was a huge commercial success. So for about ten years I was in demand to do comedies —and yes, I couldn’t get out of there! Finally, when it came to the point of whether or not I should do Ghostbusters 2, I realized I needed to get out.

DG: You had parodied yourself a few times in those comedies.

EB: The whole success of the score for Animal House was that it was a parody of a dramatic score. That would have certainly been true of Airplane. But it was fun; I enjoyed it until I found myself doing it for ten years. Then I said, “Wait a minute, I’ve been there, and done that”.

DG: Do you prefer a particular genre?

EB: [Laughs] I can only answer this in a funny way. I prefer a good film, whatever it’s genre is. Or something I can get involved in—something that involves me. It could be a comedy, but I want to get involved with the people. I prefer two ends of the spectrum, musically: either things with a huge orchestra, or things with a very small orchestra. I don’t care for medium-sized ones.

DG: In many of your scores, you use an Ondes Martenot. What is it about that instrument that keeps drawing you back to it?

EB: Well, the best way to tell you the story is to tell you how I got involved with the instrument. I think it was in 1981. I did a seminar at the Britain Pears Music School in England, in Aldeburgh. And I did it with Richard Rodney Bennett, who was on the panel with me. He kept talking about this instrument, the Ondes. I asked my then orchestrator, Christopher Palmer, “What’s he talking about?” Christopher explained the instrument to me, and we were working on Heavy Metal at the time, and Christopher said that the Ondes would really work with this film. To make a long story short, we imported the famous French player of this instrument, Jeanne Loriod, and when she played the first time I heard it, my hair stood up since it was such an amazing sound. I said, “Wow this is really useful!” and I just fell in love with the instrument. Heavy Metal was the first one, and after that I had to create my own player! Because Jeanne lived in Paris, I found a player (now a composer) by the name of Cynthia Millar. She’s bi-national, and she has a home here and in England—so we don’t have to import players!

DG: What is your scoring approach? Do you use the traditional approach of pad and paper? Or do you now use a synthesizer to mock things up?

EB: Well, the process for me is that the first thing I do is run the film over and over again. I try to get the film to talk to me, so to speak. I want to find out what’s in this film, what the film’s about, where we’re going to take off from. The instrument I use is a piano—and paper. Sometimes I’ll use a synthesizer and program so I can show the theme to a filmmaker, to approximate some “realistic” sound. I don’t compose on them—I strictly write the notes. Just write them down.

DG: What are your thoughts on temp scores? Do you listen to the temp at all?

EB: I won’t listen to a temp score. It’s very well known that I won’t listen to them. Sometimes they cause problems. I won’t listen to the temp to begin with, but I might listen to some of it if the filmmaker likes some attitude that the temp score has. In the last film I did, Keeping The Faith, Edward Norton had a very distinct sense for what he wanted the sound to do. So eventually I listened to some of the temp score, and I understood where he was talking about.

DG: You had worked on “The National Geographic Specials” —did you also compose the now famous theme for that series?


Yes, I wrote that! As a matter of fact, you know the crazy thing about that —I wish I could remember—it came out of a show I wrote, and they adopted it as the theme.

DG: You say that you are going to re-record scores for issue on Amber Records. Why don’t you use the original recordings?

EB: Well, let’s take the case of Kings of the Sun. No tapes exist that I can get my hands on. But I have the sketches I wrote, so I have to re-orchestrate them and record them with an orchestra. In some cases I have old tapes that I could use. I don’t know whether people want to hear them because they’re old, or hear them in hi-fi. While the old tapes aren’t going to sound as good, they are the original performances.

DG: What do you think about the resurgence of interest in film scores and preservation (with re-issues, and DVD isolated scores, etc.)?

EB: Well, I think that interest in film music is wonderful. I feel that film music is the lyric music of our time. I’m somewhat concerned about quality; I’m somewhat concerned about piracy, which is really rampant. Outside of those problems, I think it’s wonderful.

DG: You are still the President of the Film Music Society, which you founded. What are you working on there?

EB: Right now we¹re in the process of acquiring a building in Los Angeles —we’re going to have a film music museum and information center—similar to the Museum of Television and Radio.

DG: You have worked a few times with director Martin Scorsese. Are you going to be working on The Gangs of New York?

EB: We haven’t talked about it. They’re just about getting themselves up for shooting it, so it’s something that wouldn’t come to light until next year.

DG: So what are you working on currently?

EB: Right now I’m working on a great deal of concert music. I recently wrote a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which I recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. That will be released in October. At the present time I’m writing a string quartet. I’ve got to get about writing my memoirs—everyone is after me to do that, and I’ve been procrastinating! I certainly have no objection to scoring a film if I can find a decent one—which is not easy! And I’m busy with the Amber Records projects as well.

DG: I know it’s almost a moot question, but what would your dream project be?

EB: [Laughs] My dream project? Well, there was a time when I thought musicals would be a great thing to do—but I wouldn’t care to do that now. I’m in the fortunate position of having done just about everything in my field, and I think I’ve done all of my dream projects!

Thanks to Robert Urband and Lisa Edmondson for setting up the interview, and David Koran and Matthew Saunders for helping with the questions.

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