LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Film composers aren’t exactly the most social creatures in Hollywood.
But when five of this year’s Oscar front-runners — A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Howard Shore (“Doubt”), Danny Elfman (“Milk”), Alexandre Desplat (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Jan Kaczmarek (“The Visitor”) — sat down recently with The Hollywood Reporter, they seized the opportunity for a frank, passionate discussion of the past, present and future of film music.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: FILM IS A COLLABORATIVE ART, BUT COMPOSERS WORK IN RELATIVE ISOLATION. IS IT STRANGE TO GET TOGETHER LIKE THIS?
Jan Kaczmarek: We tend to socialize very little. Much less than writers or directors.
Danny Elfman: Any part of the industry really. In fact, directors and writers tend to seek each other out. God knows actors all seem to know each other. It is the weirdest field for sure.
Howard Shore: Let’s change that.
Alexandre Desplat: We should set aside a week or so during the year and meet. Or at least try to ...
Shore: Like a retreat.
Elfman: Somewhere in the Himalayas.
Desplat: With a studio of course.
THR: IF YOU HAD TO NAME ONE SCORE THAT HAS INFLUENCED YOUR WORK THE MOST, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
A.R. Rahman: (Vangelis’) “Chariots of Fire,” because it was all electronic and it was fascinating. I used to listen to orchestral scores, but this one was completely new. It interested me to get into synthesizers and explore the feeling and emotions (of electronic scores).
Kaczmarek: This needs a disclaimer: There are a number of great scores. But because I have to answer: “The Mission” by Ennio Morricone. If you ask why, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from a Catholic country (Poland) and I prefer a certain amount of spiritual emotion or passion. I love ethnic elements and, for me, it was deeply moving — and deeply moving is the ultimate compliment.
Shore: I would say Toru Takemitsu’s work. Especially “Woman in the Dunes.” His use of silence, I thought, was interesting. Takemitsu also did “Ran.” He used music in an epic way. I think that I was interested in how other composers from different countries expressed their ideas in film.
Elfman: (1951’s) “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Bernard Herrmann. Probably because of the age. A lot of the bigger influences have a lot to do with what age you were exposed to something. I must have been 12, and it was the first time that I became aware that there is a personality behind music. Until then, I just thought music rolled out of a machine. It was that movie that I noticed the music, and I noticed the name, and I realized that somebody did this. (After that) I started looking for Herrmann’s name every time I would go to the movies.
THR: DO YOU EVER LISTEN TO YOUR PAST WORK AND THINK, “I COULD HAVE DONE THAT BETTER?”
Shore: I try not to. It’s too painful because, of course, you are always trying to rewrite music you’ve done. You are always trying to achieve something greater than what you’ve done. You’re rarely ever satisfied.
THR: REPHRASING THE QUESTION, DO YOU EVER THINK YOU REALLY NAILED IT?
Shore: No. Never. I was at a screening of “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” and I kept trying to rewrite it as I was watching it — still trying to fix certain bars.
Desplat: I can’t even play a CD of mine. I can’t look back, because you remember how on that particular day you could have achieved something better, or how it was in the studio that day, or how the sound engineer wasn’t there. I don’t think a creator should look back — not only for your work but for everything. Looking back captures your history, but you should continue to look forward.
THR: CAN IT HELP BEING ON A SCHEDULE WITH SUCH TIGHT DEADLINES?
Elfman: I think this is critical when I talk to young composers. If you can not adapt to work under, sometimes, excruciating deadlines, then you really are not going to last in this industry — because that is, most of the time, a reality. It’s an exception if a movie has no particular time limit.
Desplat: Sometimes when I wake up in the morning I feel like I’m in a film noir, with my back up against the wall and there is a gun. But I have no gun.
THR: DO YOU LIKE WHERE FILM MUSIC IS AT NOW IN ITS EVOLUTION?
Kaczmarek: Well there is this great era of composers that we always site, like Herrmann and (Erich) Korngold. But as much as I like bold strokes and the great scope of that era, it is, in a sense, useless today because we can’t write that way. As much as I admire that craft, we are living in different times. There is a much more subtle language being used now.
Rahman: I am so much in love with scores that have great melodies, but nowadays if you have a great melody they say, “Oh, it’s distracting from my film.”
Shore: Film music is changing all the time. From year to year, the styles are changing, and frankly, they are all of interest. I find it an interesting, fascinating process seeing this art form evolve over a hundred years. I think this year is the 100th anniversary of film music. If you look at the history of it, and where we are in it, it’s such a young art form steeped in music tradition. It started with classical music and then opera and then evolved into the great scores of the ‘30s, the experimentation of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It has just been an interesting process. Film music is a fascinating art form and there is still great work to be done. We have the benefit of all these great works of the past to build on, and there is a future ahead.
Desplat: The field is so wide open in front of us. That’s why I like to create music for movies, because you can try anything.
THR: IT DOES SEEM THAT THESE DAYS THE MUSIC CAN EASILY GET LOST BECAUSE THE SOUND EFFECTS ARE SO LOUD.
Elfman: There’s a trend for films in general to be louder and louder each summer. I noticed this for the last 10, 12 years. There is a point where it can’t go any louder.
Kaczmarek: It also depends on the type of film. Some films require huge electric energy. But it’s very good to discuss. I believe it is in a critical situation. On the other hand, we cannot start complaining all the time because this is also unwise. Of course it’s critical because of what you all said and what Danny said: There is less space for our creative contribution. There are some directors who are very sensitive to music and who understand music, who know that music can create a miracle. But there is a second part to this: the studios.
Desplat: I think the director is crucial. Sometimes he can have power over the studios.
Kaczmarek: Sometimes, but it’s very rare. I worked one time with this director who had final cut, and even then it wasn’t that great because the studio said, “Yes, you can have your final cut, but we will only open you in five theaters instead of 2,000.”
Elfman: The best music is often done on the lower budgets. Look at the dozen best scores of the year. Very often — not always, but often — they are the little films that tend to come out at the end of the year where the music is allowed to shine.
Shore: I tend to disagree with that, I must say. I think the quality of recordings is being affected by the budgets. There are budgets that are required to achieve a certain quality in the studio. We shouldn’t be trying to do things with less and less money.
Elfman: We both just finished relatively low budget movies.
Shore: Yes, but the music budgets should bear a relationship to the overall cost of the film — and that’s not quite happening. I don’t like to see that. I’d like to see the budgets maintain a certain percentage of the overall cost.
Kaczmarek: I think it’s very dangerous. I think it’s romantic to think things can happen with no money, but if there is no money in our profession, we cannot afford the best orchestras. If we don’t hire orchestras, they have no income, they lose their instruments. In my country, the film business deteriorated to a miserable level. Under communism, Polish filmmaking was stronger. Even with censorship, it was much better because there was money in the system so people could make good movies.
Desplat: I think the debate is more about different types of cinema. We are talking more about art movies. That’s what they are called here. In France, they are just called movies. (Laughter.) We don’t have big studio movies. So I think, yes, when you do an art movie, everyone has the same kind of energy. They’re all trying to create something different, something that explores, something that takes chances. There’s more freedom. If you don’t need a big orchestra and only need a few players, you can have that and make a very good score.
Shore: To make good films you need a good balance between all parts — the cinematography, the production design, the postproduction, the preproduction. Music has to maintain a quality of the overall design of the film. I see that shrinking. I don’t like the fact that it’s shrinking. It should maintain a level that it had maybe five to 10 years ago. To make good films, there should be a balance. Music shouldn’t get short shrift.
THR: WHAT IS THE LEAST ENJOYABLE PART OF THE COMPOSING PROCESS?
Rahman: Deadlines and pressure. That happens every time.
Desplat: It’s when I can’t find what I am looking for, day or night. One day goes by. Then it’s a week. Then it’s 10 days. When the ideas aren’t coming, I sleep.
Kaczmarek: I go for a walk. An intense one. Speed-walking helps.
Elfman: Like Alexandre, needing to find something that I feel like I haven’t found, feeling the ticking of the clock. Trying to be relaxed enough to not panic, because if you panic, you will never find what you are looking for.
Shore: I asked an illustrator how he creates so much, and he said, “Just keep the pencil moving.” Just toil. Keep the pencil moving. It’s so simple. As long as your pencil is moving, you are working. If it’s moving, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Even if it’s not very good, you feel it’s moving.
Elfman: Do you ever feel like you are working on an equation?
Shore: It’s a cumulative process, writing music. “The Lord of the Rings” scores took almost four years to write, but it felt like 40 years because it took a lot of time for me to learn how to write that much music in that time frame, to be able to do it and orchestrate it. It’s a cumulative effect that allows you to write and open up under pressure, under deadlines. It’s just the experience and the cumulative energy of doing it all those years.
Elfman: What do you do when you put that bucket down the well and you don’t hear the water?
Shore: You keep the pencil moving.