Keynote Address from the Third Annual Film and TV Music Conference

A speech presented by Elmer Bernstein

The following speech was presented by Elmer Bernstein at the third annual film and TV music conference at the Directors Guild of America in March, 1998. The event was hosted by the Hollywood Reporter and the Society of Composers and Lyricists. [A reporter at the time writes, “During his keynote address, Bernstein focused on the threats to his beloved industry and called on other composers to take action.”]

Thank you. Thank you, Charles, for all the really kind words and I will never tell how we’re related. There aren’t a great many great things about growing old, I’ll tell you, but one of the great advantages of so doing is that you don’t have to lie anymore. You know, we deal in our society and certainly in our business, we paper over the rough spots with platitudes, with half-truths, and very often outright lies. One thing about growing old is you don’t have to do that anymore. You’re free and that’s what I intend to do today, is not tell any lies. The truth is a frightening thing. Have you ever noticed? Have you ever noticed when somebody says to you, I’m going to tell you the truth, all kinds of warning bells go off? Well I’m going to try to tell the truth about some things, at least the truth as I see it of course.

I’m addressing myself mainly, I must say, to composers. I know there are filmmakers here, and I think that the composers are in trouble, and I think what we do professionally is in trouble. And I think that if we address ourselves to what the trouble is, it will be beneficial to the filmmakers as well, and I apologize if my interests seem to be a bit parochial. Part of the problem we face is the fact that music is an art. That sounds funny to say. The composing of music is an art. In our business, art is the only three-letter dirty word because art requires courage, and it’s very hard to have courage when you spend a year and a half. I’m talking about a filmmaker now. As a filmmaker, you spend a year and a half, two years developing a project, shooting a project. A project which costs millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars. And you blow it out all one weekend on sixteen hundred screens, and what happens on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that weekend determines whether that picture is going to survive or not. It’s a numbers game. Everything about our business has become a numbers game. We’re automated and that is not a good atmosphere for art. And that is the problem we’re facing.

Now, I’m not here with solutions mind you. I’m not here with solutions because I don’t know the solutions, but I do know that when one tries to cure a madness, the first thing we have to do is drop denial. We have to say we’re in trouble and then we have to examine the trouble, look it in the face, find out what the anatomy of that trouble is, and once we know that, we may be able to point ourselves to some solutions. And the problems aren’t only simple things like the temp score, that horrible thing, or the fact that we’re being squeezed in the amount of time that is given us to write a score, or the fact that our art is being invaded in ways which are killers. These are all part of a grand scheme of things in which we to a certain extent are co-conspirators because we let it happen. We let it happen because we need the work. Fair enough.

Now people say to me, this is something I don’t understand at all. People say to me, “You know, what has happened to film scoring?” I hear this all the time. I hear it from filmmakers. “You know, what happened, you know, what happened to the great film scorers?” Well of course it’s an unsensical question because I’ll tell you, I teach a class at USC, and I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with film scoring and the people that I teach there, I just hope to see them fed into our business. There’s nothing wrong with film scoring and there’s nothing wrong with the talent, but there is something wrong, seriously wrong with the process and the system.

In my experience, I’ll tell you something about my early experience and then I’m going to get off myself. The way I got into this business was that I was hired by a producer in 1950. I was hired by a producer who heard a score that I had written for a radio show of all things. A radio show called “Some Time Before Morning.” He heard this score and this was a score about the ending of the Arab Israeli War, the first one, Arab Israeli War, and he was attracted by what I had done. This is very interesting because this man made an executive decision. This was before the tape era. He heard the score and he thought, well this guy seems to know what he’s doing. I like what he’s doing. The film he hired me for was not about an Arab Israeli war. It was a film about football, but his executive decision was, he was hiring the composer because the concept was that if the composer knows what the composer is doing, the composer can compose other things. You don’t expect to hear the score for the football film. You expect to hire somebody you think can write music.

“The Ten Commandments,” in its time, was the most expensive film ever made in the history of film. It cost in those days fourteen million dollars. This was in 1954. That same film made today would probably cost about three hundred million. Cecil B. DeMille selected me to be the composer of the score of that film with no substantial credits whatsoever, but he liked some things I had done, and he hired the composer because he thought that the composer could write a score for his film. It was an executive decision made by a person who had the courage to make those kinds of decisions. Now that would be like one of my students suddenly being given the assignment to write the score for “Titanic.” You know what chance of that there would be today.

In those days when I first started working, my boss was always the head of the music department. It was Alfred Newman or Morris Stoloff or John Green who are themselves incredible musicians. For instance, when I did my first romantic score, it was for a film called “The View from Pompey’s Head” in 1955 for Fox Pictures. Alfred Newman was head of the department at that time, and I came to Alfred with some problems. I would go to him with my problems. I was worried about a theme I had written because I thought it was very close to something, a piece by Rachmaninoff. And he listened to it. He said, “No, it’s okay.” I said, “You know I’ve never done a romantic film before.” And he started to talk to me about it. Actually, he let me look at a film that he had just completed called “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing” as a model. Not a bad model.

I remember Morris Stoloff, for instance, my relationship with Morris Stoloff was, it was with Columbia, and the very first film I did. He called me into the office and he said, “Well, there’s only one thing I’d like you to remember about writing score for movie, and that is that, a person who goes to see a movie is going to go to see the movie one time. Therefore, what you write must be written in a language that’s communicative immediately because as opposed to the concert hall, the viewer is not going to go back to see the picture a second time to try to figure out what you did in the score.” So that was the kind of counsel that I got. Nobody said let me listen to what you’re writing at that point. They assumed that if you were a composer you knew what you were doing. And they also assumed that the chances were that the decisions you made as a composer grammatically would be superior to what they could do.

Now people always refer to my scores. The scores they always talk about are some of the things that Charles just talked about. “The Man With The Golden Arm,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Sweet Smell Of Success,” “The Great Escape,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Grifters,” or “The Age Of Innocence,” and I’m here to tell you, in every one of those cases, I didn’t play anything more than a theme for any one of those films. I’m saying this as a preface to talking about the problem we face. And the problem we face as composers is process.

Process. It starts with the hiring process. It starts with the idiocy of sending tapes around to everybody which are meaningless. As a matter of fact, when this tape thing first started, I had this idea I was going to start a business and use obscure composers. I’d make you any kind of a tape you want to show off because what does a tape mean? Who knows how it was produced or what’s on it, or why is it relevant to anything, except showing in a general way what you can do as a composer. And I am telling you young composers, one of the things you should do is, do not rely on sending tapes. It’s fine to send the tapes, but if you have an agent, get that agent to get you in the door where you can meet and talk and exchange ideas because that’s where it happens. It doesn’t happen on the tape. I mean you go into Burt Berman’s office, for instance, at Sony and you can find a whole full of tapes. There must be four thousand of them there, and probably nobody’s listened to more than one track maybe. So that’s the first thing that’s wrong with the process.

The idea of “make up a tape,” and you know, the agents, by the way, are concomitant in this conspiracy because the agent of course, it’s an easy way to sell, isn’t it? It’s much easier than the agent really getting behind you and going and speaking to somebody. The other thing is, they say, “This is a horror film. Make me a tape of your horror music to send to this person.” (TAPE CUTS OFF FOR A FEW SECONDS) …because relying on it is another numbers game. It’s another automation. It’s not human. You don’t get to exchange ideas. The filmmaker doesn’t get to meet you. You don’t get to meet the filmmaker. You have no idea how you’re going to get along even if you get the film. Bad.

The next thing that happens, of course, is the whole idea of your having to demonstrate everything you do. Well, what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that. What’s wrong with that is, that music is a magic act and you need the space. You need the space to create it. If you have to play a cue every four days for somebody, you’re not thinking. You’re improvising. No great score can be written that way, and that is what’s happening today, and if it doesn’t stop, there will be no great scores written, because the great scores come out of the imagination of the composer; from nothing else.

Yes, we do want to communicate with the filmmakers. We want the filmmaker to tell us what the intent of the scene is; what emotion the filmmaker is trying to evoke; how he wants the audience to feel at this point. That’s the kind of communication we need. Not the filmmaker to say, “You know I think this should be major or minor or you know, I’m not sure about this.” Because what happens; if that process goes on, it invades your judgment as a composer. There is absolutely no question about that. You’re not thinking about how to write a score. You’re worrying about a pernickety thing about the next; well he didn’t like this particular combination of notes or whatever it is. No great scores will be written that way, and that is one of the problems we face.

We face that problem in temp scores as well because there’s fantasy. There’s a fantasy that there can be such a thing as a temp score. I’m telling you it’s a fantasy. It doesn’t exist. There’s only the score that’s written for the film, and the most cruel suffering that is done by the temp score is the suffering that the filmmaker gets; not the composer, because the composer can choose to ignore the temp score. I won’t even listen to mine as far as I’m concerned, but the filmmaker now takes his film out with the wrong score in his film and all of the sudden the scene doesn’t work. And maybe the filmmaker is acute enough to know that this film is not working because the music isn’t exactly right. But the seven dwarfs he’s got with him from the studio are not so acute about it, and they say, “Get rid of the scene. Shorten it. It doesn’t work.” It’s the filmmaker that is suffering from the temp score; not the composer. I used this example last night. Imagine now we’re going to go out and preview “As Good As It Gets,” but not with Jack Nicholson. We’ll have a substitute actor, a temp actor.


They say that there’s no solution to this, and I’m here to tell you that we better get the human beings back in this business. Not the tapes, not the machines, but get the people back in this business. That’s what it’s all about because what’s wrong here is a kind of sense of automation; not thinking. There are solutions to these things. The solution to hiring, if you have an agent, is to make your agent meet the people. Forget the tapes. Yeah, let them listen to a tape. That’s not the answer. Get in the door. Meet the filmmaker. Exchange thoughts with the filmmaker. See if you get along. That’s number one. Secondly, I think we have to convince. I’m not saying don’t play themes for anybody. I’m saying fine, play themes. That’s fine. Have conversations about themes. What I’m saying is, convince the filmmaker that it’s in the filmmaker’s best interest to give you some space; to let you imagine; to let you dream, because that’s what music is. It’s a dream, and you need the room to dream, otherwise it will never happen. It will never happen going over the cues every three days. Does not happen. Because what happens is, you get concentrated on how to please that person three days from now. That’s not composing. And it isn’t good drama.

The temp score thing. People say, well you need the temp score because the picture’s got to go out. Now I’ll tell you something about temp score. I recently went to New York. Last week I went to New York to look at a run of a picture I’m going to do called “The Deep End of the Ocean” with Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopi Goldberg. It’s a very very sensitive film about the kidnapping of a small child. And Ulu Grosbard who is directing the film turned to me and said, “There are some scenes I just don’t know how we’re going to score because, you know, I can’t think of anything that’s going to work specifically.” And I said, “You’re right. The wrong music will kill these scenes.” So what I suggested is, “I want to work on the score while you’re editing the film and I will write music for these scenes that you need for the temp, and I will mock them up on a synthesizer, and you will have them for your; that will be your temp score. You’ll have them for your preview. In the meantime, I’m learning stuff, you’re learning stuff. We find out what works. We find out what doesn’t work.” That’s the way it should be done, and that’s the answer to the temp score in my opinion.

In the case of “The Age of Innocence,” I remember we were talking about process. Marty and I were talking about process, and the conversations went like this, and this is the way, in my opinion, they should go. “What should the character of the music be?” “Well, it’s about upper class New Yorkers in 1870.” “We want music of the period. Should it be salon music or should it be serious music?” We decided it should be serious music. “Well serious music 1870. Who were the most famous composers in 1870 that would represent serious music of that time?” “Well, Tchaikovsky, Brahms.” “Which way should we go?” We decided Brahms. And Marty said, “Well, you know, how should we go from here?” I said, “Well, let me write some themes. Let me write some themes, and if we can get the budget, I’ll go over to Europe.”

I went over to London with a very small orchestra and I composed and orchestrated four different themes, brought them back, and Scorsese really liked two of them. Really liked two of them very very much. He said, “You can uses all four if you want, but I really like these two.” I said, “Fine.” What he started to do right away because he’s, in my opinion, the greatest living filmmaker, he immediately started to use one of the themes as he was editing, and he would try the music against, you know, various scenes to see how it was going to work or if it was going to work, in fact. But he started to actually cut quite a few scenes to the music, the two themes he liked so much.

When he was about half way through the edit, and the temp score problem came up, I said, “Why don’t we try to sell Tri Star on the idea of providing enough money; not a fee for me; it has nothing to do with a fee. Provide enough money so that maybe I could go to Ireland.” The rates were relatively inexpensive. “Go to Ireland and let’s pick twelve, just twelve places in the film that are really vital key places, and let’s make a temp score, you know, with this small orchestra.” Well, we suggested it to Tri Star and they went for it, and I went to Ireland, and I think it was about twelve or sixteen, somewhere between twelve and sixteen pieces came back and Scorsese used these pieces as he was editing the film, and that became the temp score when we went out to show the film, that was the temp score. By the time we got around to the final scoring, that was like rolling off a log after all that because we found out what worked, we found out what didn’t work, and we were home.

Now, this sounds like a pretty radical thing, but this is the answer to the temp score; to be involved right from the beginning of the editing process, and do away with the temp score, and have real contact with and real interchange of ideas between the director and the composer because this is where it counts. It counts in the film. It doesn’t count on a tape. It doesn’t count on a piano. It doesn’t count on a synthesizer. It counts in the film. That’s where film music lives and that’s where film music should be. And I think we can bring that about. There are many many ways to bring that about and I urge you, when you can, to do this. It is to our advantage to spend the time and the effort to develop our scores in this manner. Beneficial to the composer. Beneficial to the filmmaker. Real interchange of ideas and not theoretical things.

So I think there are some solutions to these things, but these are the problems we face, and if we don’t deal with them, these problems are going to kill us, and it’s going to become ever more difficult to write a great score, or even write a good one. T.S. Elliot in his poem, The Wasteland, ends by saying, “This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but with a whimper.” And we’re getting pretty close to the whimper, and I would suggest we get on with the bang.

I’m going to leave you with a saying of a very famous French photographer at the turn of the century, Lartigue, who was asked when he was very old, “How did you get through life?” And I would suggest this to all of us. He said, “Breathe deeply and let God take you by the hand.” Thank you. Go for it!

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