Trent Reznor, Danny Elfman and Top Composers Reveal Insecurities, Power of Procrastination and the Real Story Behind 'Interstellar's' Controversial Sound Mix
Five sleep-deprived film music maestros — including Marco Beltrami, John Powell and Hans Zimmer — open up about their biggest challenges, what happens when a director doesn't like their work and where they get their inspiration
This story first appeared in a special awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Film composers love to talk about insomnia. Prior to The Hollywood Reporter roundtable with five of the industry's most sought-after film scorers, the group — Marco Beltrami, 48 (The Homesman), Danny Elfman, 61 (Big Eyes), John Powell, 51 (How to Train Your Dragon 2), Trent Reznor, 49 (Gone Girl), and Hans Zimmer, 57 (Interstellar) — chatted at length about their preferred sleep aids. Most favor Ambien, but at least one opted for a method that might or might not be entirely legal (hint: It involves THC). Then there's Zimmer, who is such a night owl, he referred to the 1 p.m. start of the sit-down as "my morning time."
The discussion that followed touched on the technical, like less-than-ideal sound mixes, and the personal, including the admission that their lives are so hectic, they rarely get time to relax with family and listen to music for pleasure. Throughout, these awards contenders — with 16 Oscar noms and two wins between them — appeared to relish the opportunity to actually talk shop; after all, the composer's life is largely an isolated one, and the chance to trade war stories with other composers is rare. Says Elfman: "The unsureness of how other people feel I find very helpful, because I'm unsure of everything."
What was the biggest musical challenge you faced in the past year? What caused the most anxiety?
HANS ZIMMER In my case, I don't think there was a lot of anxiety. Obviously, on Interstellar when the director [Christopher Nolan] says, "Is there a way in music you could sort of consolidate the different theories of time, gravity and things like that in some sort of poetic way?" it keeps you up at night. But I was very protected by Chris. I could just go in and confess my ideas and whatever I wanted to try out, we could try out. It was just one long great experiment; just keeping the lab doors open and going for it.
TRENT REZNOR My struggle with Gone Girl revolved around boxing myself into a schedule. A couple years ago, we knew that David [Fincher's] next film was going to be a different film that would've started right now. I booked a tour with Nine Inch Nails, which was going to eat up almost all of this year. And once that tour was booked and went on sale, I got the call saying, "Hey, that other film fell through. Now I'm going to do Gone Girl." So it was either pass — which I wasn't going to allow — or try to find a way to fit that into any time there was a week off or any moment to address working on the score. And I approach these projects with a great sense of insecurity. I try to make up for that by just an enormous amount of work I can throw at it, you know, to make up for what might be dead-ends or wrong directions. I think it wound up being a good thing, but it made the process a bit anxious throughout. I always felt like if there's one wrong turn, I could screw this up without the luxury of time to fix things.
DANNY ELFMAN [Tim Burton] didn't want Big Eyes to sound like his other scores; he wanted to think small. He didn't want it to get into the fantasy side that he's so often explored. Tim never says he loves any piece of music I've ever written. He's either pulling his hair out, which is bad, or he's looking pensive, and that's good. And he'll nod, maybe a little bit. So I just look for where the hair stops getting pulled and then I know we're OK.
JOHN POWELL On Dragon, [I was] just trying to come to terms with the fact that I was getting old, the characters were getting old and my style was getting old, I think. So I just had to be happy with the fact that I was sounding really old-fashioned. I used to be hip, apparently, and now I'm this old fart that does only orchestral music and writes tunes. It took a while, but I had to kind of get over it … I think it was about being 50 right at the time when I was trying to write this score.
Big Eyes composer Danny Elfman
So you had a midlife crisis?
POWELL I did, right in the middle of the film. It was funny, actually.
What's it like the first time you play a score for a director?
ELFMAN Well, if anybody gets effusive with praise, I want to disappear very quickly. I just want to hide.
REZNOR I'm speaking with very limited experience, but as Danny said, I'm suspicious immediately of any sort of praise if it sounds too good. I want to focus in on the negative. You know, if there's a hundred reviews and one is bad, that's the one that I'm paying attention to. I know David quite well and we have a similar kind of mindset, so we've got a rhythm where he's careful to critique, but I know when we haven't hit it right. When we get it right, it is usually a pretty glowing response that feels good. And then I know it's genuine coming from him.
ZIMMER I had run into Chris about two years ago and he said, "If I gave you one page but wouldn't tell you what the movie is about, would you give me one day and just write whatever comes to you?" Sounds like a fun experiment. So he gave me this one page. Typewritten, old typewriter, thick paper so I knew there were no carbon copies. And there was a fable really about being a parent. He knows me pretty well. There were lots of things which we had talked about over dinners. So I sat down, wrote the piece. I phoned him up Sunday 9:30 at night. And I said to him, "Do you want me to send it over?" And he goes, "No, can you come over?" So I went over and I played it to him. I looked at him and went, "So what do you think?" And he says, "Suppose I better make the movie." And then I said, "What is the movie?" Somewhere while he was explaining the physics and everything to me, I said, "Hang on a second. I've only written you this tiny little fragile theme." And he goes, "Yeah, but I know where the heart of the story is now." So that was a good way to start.
ELFMAN There's advantages and disadvantages to being with a director that you know really well. On the one hand, you can kind of fall into a rhythm where you understand what they might be looking for, and it makes sense. And on the other hand, sometimes not knowing what the director is like and what their expectations are … that's a whole kind of a beautiful thing unto itself.
What happens if the director really doesn't like what you've just played?
MARCO BELTRAMI It's fine if the director can articulate the reasons and we're able to have a conversation. With [Homesman director] Tommy [Lee Jones], it was very much like that. Because one of the great things about working with him is, he doesn't use a temp score. He's all about "here's the picture," "it's an open slate, I want creativity and originality," which is all great. But if I know he has some sort of mindset about what the picture's about and if the music's not going to fit into that, then there's a problem. But if he can articulate what it is and I can respond to it, then I'm happy to work on it. If it comes to an impasse where you can't see what they're going after, then it's a certain point where you have to walk away.
ELFMAN I can't think of anything I'm more terrified of, still, than the first time I'm playing something.
ZIMMER I so agree.
BELTRAMI What's interesting is that you actually perceive your own music differently when somebody like the director or somebody else is in the room. And you're so conscious of every nuance that's going on with them.
REZNOR I agree with that. It's a strange thing, even if I'm working on an album and I've got 15 songs and I need to trim it down to 12. If I have a friend come in and listen, I don't even have to look at them — I immediately know what has to go.
ELFMAN There's a balance as we're getting attached to something and the director hasn't heard it yet. If you wait too long, you're going to get really attached to it. Then you might play it and the director might go, "No, no, it's the wrong thing," and then you're devastated. You don't want to get so attached that you run the risk of, like, really getting into it. It can just go evaporate in a second like a bubble.
Gone Girl composer Trent Reznor
What's your routine like when you're working on a project?
POWELL If I have three months to do it, the first month I don't. Then the second month …
ELFMAN You think about thinking about getting started.
POWELL Yeah. Then you get really worried because you're running out of time …
ELFMAN You have no choice.
This happens every time?
POWELL Oh yeah, absolutely. Every single time.
BELTRAMI Fear's a good motivator.
POWELL Eventually you run out of time and your adrenaline is so high that you start writing. In this particular case [Dragon 2], I got lucky because it was on a sequel. Sequels are great, but they're very hard sometimes. This time I knew the tone; it just had to mature. And I had a filmmaker who'd constructed a story that was so precisely done, I could see it exactly. It wasn't just in conversations beforehand, or the year before. It was literally the first time I saw the film; everything was there. So then it was just about sort of stitching together the music so it adhered as closely as it could to this perfectly constructed narrative. And making sure that structurally it was all in place. That kind of made it easier. But the process is always to be frightened — because there's nothing in your future other than failure.
ZIMMER I think that's why I'm very lucky with Chris, who really tries to protect me. We finished the movie and then we showed it to [a few] people and nobody else gets to see it. And I work well late at night; Chris is a morning person. But I realize that something happens about him coming over late at night. Sunday evenings are really productive for us because it's not business. He's now in the band somehow. And it's the two of us jamming. It's not like he's sitting there playing instruments, but we're trying to construct an intellectual framework for what the music can do in this movie. And actually the best thing I ever learned about how to do a movie is from John Powell, who said you just have to get it under your fingers. And I think that's absolutely true, because there comes a certain point where everything you play is in the character of that movie. But it takes a while to get there; you have to learn it. You have to invent the language, you have to find the words, you have to figure out what and how you want to say it, and you have to figure out how you're going to say it with the filmmaker.
REZNOR I've learned over the years that a deadline is productive. My new thing as I'm old now is, before the sun comes up, I wake up and my timetable's probably the opposite of yours [Zimmer's]. I start with a full bucket of ideas, midday, by the end I'm defeated and I'm ready to just give up and start fresh, and so my mornings are productive.
Where does that bucket of ideas come from?
REZNOR I found in my film work, it's replacing the idea that I would come up with as a song idea and trying to get inside David's head and become familiar with the material. My strategy, which has worked pretty well, has been: Read the script or the novel, become very intimate with what the spirit of the story is, and then spend as much time with David as I can to hear what he thinks about it, what kind of film is he trying to make. And to pick up on phrases he might repeat or clues from bread crumbs he drops. There's just a feeling you get from him because he's thought deeply about every aspect of what's happened. Every word, the slightest bit of set design detail — he's been touching it and knows it. But he never tells us what to do. I just take that and try to not think about composing music for that film but what it feels like in that world.
Do you ever see yourself writing a big, traditional orchestral score?
REZNOR I'd love to have the opportunity if it was appropriate for the film. The little bit that we dabbled in on Gone Girl was more just accessorizing a bit. There were a few passages that we were working on that sounded like it might be interesting to see what would happen if a room full of people were playing it. We had several hours to kind of really open my eyes to the possibilities [of an orchestra] that I hadn't really had access to in my world. So, yeah, I would like to try that.
The Homesman composer Marco Beltrami
Is it difficult to go from rock 'n' roll, which is very aggressive, to film music, which isn't really supposed to draw attention to itself?
ELFMAN I wouldn't agree with that. If you look at the last 75 years of film music, there's a lot that would counter that; that's a contemporary thing that I've heard very frequently. "It's not supposed to be noticed." But why is it not supposed to be noticed? I grew up on Alfred Hitchcock's films, Bernard Herrmann, and I noticed every note that Bernard Herrmann played in those movies. So why was I supposed to notice it growing up but now somebody isn't? So I think it depends on the film. There are films where the music is supposed to melt into the background more and become more of a transparent support. And there are films where clearly there's no reason why the music shouldn't be charging along as a major character, front and center as much as anything else in the film. It depends on the style of the film. But as an overall concept, which I've heard frequently in the last 10, 15 years, I find it a little bit baffling why that seems to be the consciousness of music in film.
ZIMMER But I don't think that's the consciousness of filmmakers. I think it's just an old cliche.
What about the sound mix? Sometimes film music doesn't seem as loud as the sound effects. Hans, given the controversy surrounding the sound on Interstellar, can you comment on this?
ZIMMER You know, one of the things Trent brought up was that we work as a team. For instance, Richard King, our sound designer, Alex Gibson, our music editor, Chris — we are all in this together. And we really discuss what our sonic landscape is going to be, before we even go in. And then the last six weeks are a period where every Friday, we'd watch the whole thing in a different theater and make little notes and stuff. So the last Friday, we had one week left and I remember watching the movie with Chris and everybody else. And for the first time in my life, I was saying, "I think we're done." There is nothing random in it. We made the movie that we wanted to make. And the controversy, if you want to call it that, is, yes, there will always be [one] if you're provocative in a certain way. These days people will take to the Internet. It seems to be that people who have to take issue with something are going to be the most vocal.
Interstellar composer Hans Zimmer
Were you intentionally doing something provocative?
ZIMMER We never tried to alienate an audience. What we were trying to do was, we were intentionally being bold. Because that's what we felt we needed to be. I mean, be bold or go home. Chris gave me this watch, and on the back it says, "This is not a time for caution." Which is really how we approached the whole thing, and I think really the thinking behind this is, "Let's make the movie we want to make." You know? Let's stand by our decision. Which is absolutely what we did.
BELTRAMI When I started out, I used to view the sound department as almost like the enemy. But gradually I've come [around]. Now on every picture I do, I work very closely with the sound team because, to me, it's one integrated experience. It's not always an exact line between sound and music, and what is music and what is sound? Those are questions that we always ask and we're playing with.
ELFMAN It can occasionally feel like the music is an afterthought and — as certainly these gentlemen know very well — genre is everything. I just did a movie that was just two guys driving in a car. It was like heaven; it was just conversations. But when you're in an action film with a lot of effects, you run the gamut … it could be that someone like Christopher Nolan would take great effort to use the music. And it could be that there will be a team that will literally just put all of their effort into the effects, and then put in the music and that's it. I've seen both extremes. And I'm not even taking a side one way or another; I'm just close to a hundred films now and I've seen far sides of both extremes. But I've had my heart broken many times … we all have.
Composers tend to work in isolation. What's it like to interact like this?
ELFMAN I like hearing that there's insecurity out there. That's what I've gotten; I've done three of these [roundtables] and it's been really helpful for me to know that others are as insecure as I am. The unsureness of how other people feel I find very helpful because I'm unsure of everything still.
ZIMMER But don't you think that's part of the job? I mean, don't you think that is part of the journey? The moment I feel sure, I know I'm just churning out stuff.
BELTRAMI You have to be confident. Otherwise you throw everything out. But without that insecurity, you're not going to push the boundaries to look further. I think it's like riding a very fine line.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 composer John Powell
You all seem to be working constantly — do you have social lives?
ELFMAN That's kind of like a joke, you know? I have a family that I occasionally see. When you have a composer as a husband, father, that's what I think you have to expect. I remember saying to my wife, "It will be rather like you're a single mother raising this child, with my schedule."
Do you ever have time to listen to music for pleasure?
REZNOR That's a good question. I've been out of any kind of routine, coming off tour where I still have a suitcase open at my house right now. I've been off tour for two months now, but I haven't kicked into a real routine. And I haven't had a good location, and I don't have anything set up right now where I actually have time to sit and listen to music. And I think a lot about that because I've tried to always have in my life a place [where] the priority is to listen to music. And not to do it while you're on the computer or something else, but you're harkening back to the old days of putting the needle on the vinyl and —
ELFMAN Focusing on it.
BELTRAMI I think this comes back to your very first question: What's the hardest thing for us? For me, it's managing time. Between raising kids I try to spend time with and having a family, but also putting everything you need into the film. But how much time can you spend experimenting? How much time do you have to figure things out? And listening to music falls into that same category because I feel like I'm deprived in a lot of areas. Whereas I used to sit around and listen to records and all that, it's so hard now.
POWELL I used to hike with headphones on and listen to music, but it got a bit weird because I'd get to the top of the hill and I'd be in tears because I was listening to Puccini. And people would kind of look, come up to me and go, "Yes, the view is beautiful," and I'd say, "What?" Because I wasn't out there for the hiking, really. I was just listening. That was just a function of getting myself away, doing something I didn't want to do — which was hike — and something I did want to do, which was enjoy music. Which was the reason we all got into it. If you think about it, we're only doing this because we're trying to extend our childhoods in some way, and we all got hooked on the ability we have to get such transcendental pleasure from music. Nothing else could touch it.
When you have time to listen to music, is it film music?
POWELL No. F— no. That's crazy.