Oscar Composers: Their thoughts

Clockwise from top: Danny Elfman, A.R. Rahman, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat and Jan Kaczmarek (Photo by Dan Busta/DanBusta.com)

An interesting article/interview with five leading Hollywood composers was published by the Hollywood Reporter. Kevin Cassidy sat down with A.R. Rahman (Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire"), Howard Shore (Miramax's "Doubt"), Danny Elfman (Focus Features' "Milk"), Alexandre Desplat (Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and Jan Kaczmarek (Overture's "The Visitor").

One of the first questions was about a film or music that influences their work. It is interesting hearing Danny Elfman speak about Bernard Herrmann as an influence. I know the film he mentions "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) and while it's a classic film, since Elfman is my age it seem odd that it's an older film that he stated as his influence. Certainly, John Williams was the composer of choice during my childhood, what with "Jaws", "Close Encounters", "Star Wars", "Superman" (the list goes on). Williams really brought music back to the forefront of importance in film and made orchestral scores the norm, not the exception.

The question about re-doing a previous work better seems a bit odd. As a composer, certainly previous works are always works that could be "in progress" but at some point you have to put the work done, move on to the next project. Perhaps the good thing about film is the deadline; it has to be completed to be released and so, there comes a point where the music is done whether it's done or not. I re-opened the first movement of my Symphony No 1 the other day because the opening section has always bothered me and I think I found a way to fix it. However, that said, I am avoiding a major re-working of it, because I could spend my life trying to write the perfect symphony and never get anything else done.

Their comments about whether they feel composing is work and I resonate most with Shore's response, "Well ... no. It's part of you. At a certain point it feels like breathing. It's just a part of your life." However, Desplat said, "There is always a scene in a movie, when you look at the architecture of the movie, you think, "This will be hard" or, "This will be a piece of cake." You know where you will have your struggles. There are moments that will be technically more difficult and emotionally more difficult. You know you will have to spend more time on certain scenes." The hard moments can feel like work, but are still very enjoyable, enjoying the work, the challenge and the composition.

Rahman makes a great comment about temp music, "(Directors) have temp music from CDs and they get used to it, and then they expect you to reproduce it." I really struggle with this because student directors will choose their favorite bands to use a temp tracks and expect me to reproduce the bands sound. Then, if I do happen to accomplish this, because I haven't added lyrics (not for background music anyway), it still doesn't have the same effect and the directors send me back to the drawing board. Ugh!

Rahman makes another good comment about the use of melodies in modern films, "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.'" Man, have I heard that before! Young directors are particularly moving away from melody and themes to bizarre sounds and random noise.

Kaczmarek and Elfman speak about satisfaction. Kaczmarek said, "It's always a desire to touch the impossible, without naming it. This can be a movie or it can be a piece of work unrelated to film. But I'm still hungry for some experience, which I believe is ahead of me. It's like what Alexandre said, that we should look forward. No matter how satisfied or happy I was with my last piece I still desire the unknown." Elfmans says much the same thing only more concrete, "I don't think I've come anywhere close to anything that has made me happy. I'm still looking for my 'Lawrence of Arabia.' I want my 'Godfather.' I want my 'Citizen Kane.'" Striving for something new, something better is part of the compositional process. No matter how good a work is while I'm working on it, I will always strive to make the next one better.

The discussion of money is interesting, as Shore is arguing that music is getting constantly cut to make room for other aspects of the film and yet his counterparts seem to feel better music happens on the smaller budget films. I can't say as I've experienced this as there are only a few projects where I've been paid and so ALL of my films have been low budget. I also don't think paying a composers $100's of thousands of dollars for a score is necessary either. While I highly respect John Williams, I feel he is paid too much. (just my opinion).

The article ends talking about the worst aspect of film composing, deadlines. They all hate them and yet Shore uses the same approach I do, "You keep the pencil moving." During those times when ideas don't seem to be coming, the key is to keep writing, even if it isn't very good. Bang on the piano (not literally). Listen to other unfinished bits, ideas or sketches that have never seen the light of day yet. My continueing to push forward eventually the music starts to flow again and some of the bits that don't work now might be bits you will use later. Some of it is crap - but there is always going to be a certain amount of that. Keep writing and it will come.


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