Today, Varese Sarabande released a new compilation of Elmer Bernstein’s vivacious work as a film composer entitled “Elmer Bernstein: The Wild Side,” including tracks from “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “Ghostbusters” and “Sweet Smell of Success.” This interview was originally published in The Daily Texan on November 25, 2002 on the occasion of what would be his final film “Far From Heaven,” just two years before the legendary composer passed away at the age of 82 in 2004.
It’s been a long time since Elmer Bernstein has been called a prodigy, but that hasn’t stopped him from creating prodigious works. After scoring 242 films and television shows in the past 50 years, the prolific composer is receiving some of the best reviews of his career for his work on “Far From Heaven,” a seemingly unlikely pairing with Todd Haynes, the director of such films as “Safe” and “Velvet Goldmine.”
Yet the collaboration isn’t as unusual as it seems on the surface when you consider how Bernstein has been every bit the rebel that Haynes is, noted throughout his career for his innovations in film scoring, whether it was his use of jazz in the score for Otto Preminger’s portrait of drug addiction “The Man with the Golden Arm,” revitalizing the western genre with “The Magnificent Seven” or introducing the now all-too-common electric synthesizers into film music with 1966’s “Hawaii.”
Brought up under the tutelage of famed American composer Aaron Copland, Bernstein a connoisseur of the form, prone to coo at the mere mention of Bernard Herrmann and proud of his service as the president of the Film Music Foundation, which preserves and celebrates the rich history of film scores. Bernstein came up himself in the limelight of New York City as an award-winning concert pianist, something the composer still practices to this day and can be heard as the backbone to some of his most dynamic scores, including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that demonstrate a unique ability to convey the often tortured path to get to someplace beautiful. That could certainly describe his work in “Far From Heaven,” about a 1950s housewife trapped in a life of domesticity, and before the film is released in theaters, Bernstein talked about his most recent work as well as his career and the state of music in films.
What attracts you to a film to score?
Through your life, you change you mind about why you want to do a film. Certainly early on, you think in terms of career building — is this good for my career? Is this something I can do well enough? At this stage in my life, I generally gravitate to films because I respect the people that are doing them or I like the people that are doing them and of course, what they’re about. In the case of “Far From Heaven,” I clearly remember sitting in my living room in my eastside home in Woodstock, New York, looking at this film on a late afternoon in the spring and thinking, what an unusual thing to do in this day and age — to do an unpurposed retro film — and how beautifully made it was. What attracted me to the film almost immediately was a sense of what kind of score I could write for it.
One of the common compliments the score has received is how lush it is, but many of the film scores of today seem to be going in the opposite direction of minimalism. Was this actually a change of pace for you as well?
It’s interesting you should say that. Everybody refers to this score as lush, large and all that, but actually, it was done with a very small orchestra. Most of the score was done with 12 players and some of it was done with 46. It is the attitude of the music which is lush and actually, the question you ask is very naughty — one of the reasons you don’t get to write scores like this anymore is because of the kind of pictures that are being made. Motion pictures are not being made that want you to feel anything. They want you to have sensations, so that’s a very different thing. Sensation is a very different thing from feeling. To extrapolate on that, by sensations I mean either people doing sensational things like having inappropriate sex or violence — those are things that create sensations much more than feeling. In “Far From Heaven,” a film that’s all about feeling, it’s about the feelings of the people.
When working on “The Age of Innocence,” you and Martin Scorsese spoke about the music before shooting. Is that common practice?
In the case of “Far From Heaven,” the film was virtually complete when I saw it and I had never met Todd Haynes. He had temp scores with “To Kill a Mockingbird” [in the film already], so the fact he had temporarily scored the film that way told me there was a very good chance when we got together we’d be on the same page. Now in the case of Scorsese, our relationship was very different because I’ve done a lot of films with him, so we always had an opportunity to discuss things before it came to work on the score, but that’s very unusual. Generally speaking, it depends upon the degree a director knows his stuff about music. Scorsese certainly does. I had the same experience working with Francis Ford Coppola on “The Rainmaker,” where it felt like you were discussing music with somebody who really could be a colleague because he really knows his stuff about music.
What do you want from a director when creating a score?
It depends on what a director’s sensitivities are. Both Edward [Norton, director of “Keeping the Faith”] and Todd are extremely sensitive to music and their sensitivity alone, although neither one of them is a musician, would make me listen to them because my attitude is that I’m willing to take a good idea from anybody if they’ve got a good idea. But really what I want from a director is enthusiasm for the process of scoring a film.
As someone who has been such an innovator in film music, are there any boundaries that you would like to see broken? Are there boundaries?
That is very, very hard to say. Film score is one art that’s bound by the film itself, so a lot is going to depend on the kinds of things film decides to do. In recent years, film has faced the challenge of television by going to – as I said before – sensation-driven films, films with more special effects, films with stranger subjects and moving further and further away from real life things. I had a go with one of these special effects films that was a disaster — “Wild Wild West” — and it was not really a lot of fun to write music for that kind of stuff, at least for me.
This has an effect on what you have to write musically. I dare say if one thinks of all the great film scores of all time, with the possible exception of Bernard Herrmann because he was just a great composer and did not depend on themes or tunes — when you think of him, you don’t think of a tune right away, but in most other great composers, you do — you think of the melodic input some of the great composers of the past had like Miklos Rozsa on “Spellbound” or Franz Waxman on “A Place in the Sun.” That’s totally gone. That’s not the style and I will always believe that the art of music is basically a linear art. It depends on melodic input.
If you could put this time in your life to music, what would it sound like?
I’m very thrilled with the reaction I’m getting from the score for “Far From Heaven,” and I tell you this getting to the last part of my life here, and I’m very peaceful with what I’ve done, but because I’m classical-based in my history, I dare say that if I was going to put it to music, it would be the closing chorus for Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”