THR's Composer Roundtable: 6 Movie Maestros on Severed Heads, Stubborn Directors and Feeling 'Like Frankenstein'

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Writing music often is a solitary pursuit, so it was no wonder that when six renowned composers -- Marco Beltrami, 46 (The Sessions), Mychael Danna, 54 (Life of Pi), Alexandre Desplat, 51 (Argo, Moonrise Kingdom, Rise of the Guardians, Zero Dark Thirty), Patrick Doyle, 59 (Brave), Danny Elfman, 59 (Frankenweenie, Hitchcock, Promised Land, Silver Linings Playbook), and Fernando Velazquez, 36 (The Impossible) -- gathered in one room, they relished the chance to discuss the complexities of their trade as part of THR's roundtable series. The setting for this gathering of scoring heavy hitters and potential Academy Award nominees: a soundstage sans musicians but with the familiar trappings of a workspace they know all too intimately. Indeed, the high-pressure undertaking of putting music to picture can be a painful process, but the rewards, like a perfectly formed, unforgettable melody, are worth every sacrifice -- and there are many.

The Hollywood Reporter: What were the biggest musical riddles you all had to solve in the last year?

Mychael Danna: I have, I don't know, a hundred films on my IMDb page, but at the beginning of every project I truly can't remember how to do this job. (Laughter.) It's like: I know I did one a minute ago, but I really can't remember. Step one is just talking with the director and really getting inside the film, inside the story and inside the director's head. On Life of Pi, that was something we took a long time on. Ang [Lee] worked on the film for four years, and we'd been talking about it for four years. I started writing kind of in the way that we'd talked about, and it wasn't really working. It was too intellectual. So we discovered that really what Pi needed was something kind of more effortless. All those intellectual ideas had to be in the music, but they had to be disguised in a way that they were not, so they wouldn't shake you out of the main thrust, which was this emotional level that it had to work at. That was a struggle. It was hard for me because my natural way of writing is complex. I think simple is hard anyway, but simple for me is really hard.

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Alexandre Desplat: There's always a moment when you don't find the key to the lock. You have to dig deeper, and that's tiring. So you sleep. I sleep a lot. When I find an idea, I literally just sleep, you know, 10 minutes.

THR: The Albert Einstein 10-minute nap and then you're rejuvenated?

Desplat: Oh, I do a lot of that. It's very efficient.

Danny Elfman: I've often said the easy part of film scoring is writing the music. The hard part is understanding the director. And you almost have to be as much of a psychologist as a composer to do film composing.

THR: Why is that? What is the best way to communicate with a director?

Desplat: I always thought that we could give master classes to directors. Not to teach them, but to help them to communicate. The best thing is a director with a strong point of view.

Patrick Doyle: If there's an intelligent point of view.

Marco Beltrami: It's a question of understanding what they're saying, but it's also a question of then being able to focus their vision on what they want, because it's not always a clear matter.

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THR: How do you do that?

Doyle: Often you say, "I'm only trying to help here, and there's no other reason I'm here. It's because I love music, I love drama, and I'm here to help." As Danny said, you're a bit of a psychologist as well.

Elfman: We get them at their most fragile moment.

Doyle: Totally.

Elfman: In the beginning, when you first meet them, they're full of confidence, as is everybody who begins a film. You can't begin one without it. At the end, they're about to preview. You're gonna get them at their lowest moment of confidence. You have to be their ally and try to convince them that you're there to help them, because they themselves may be having their great moment of doubt just exactly when you come on board.

THR: Will directors defer to you at that point?

(Laughter.)

Doyle: No.

Desplat: No, because music is like an iceberg coming toward them -- they don't know how to grab on to it.

Elfman: Frequently, even though we're collaborators, we are there in the eleventh hour. It's like parachuting into a war. They've been shooting at each other. And I've just got in in my parachute. And I'm just trying to find -- first off, who's my ally here? Who can I depend on? Who's the general? You have to find your bearings very quickly.

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Desplat: And also there's the fact that you drop in in your parachute, and there's not just one general. There's also some colonels ...

Elfman: Ah, yes ...

Desplat: And captains.

THR: So what happens when all the captains and colonels get involved?

Doyle: You have to be canny and try and make sure you constantly are being supportive -- even in the midst of the bombs.

Desplat: But music is a subjective object for anyone, because people will watch the movie and say, "Hmm, I don't like this music." Is it the music he doesn't like, or is it the music with the picture? Or is it where the music is placed? Is it too loud? Is it not loud enough? Is it the orchestration? And so if you have 10 people watching a sequence with music for the first time, you'd get, most of the time, eight against two.

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Elfman: That exact scenario is my biggest nightmare on a film, where there's suddenly a number of people and there's a consensus around the room, and you have to sit there and think, "Oh my God." It's like, how do I navigate this? And clearly it makes the job easier when there's a strong general.

Beltrami: It's funny talking about how all these things are psychological issues. There's this whole other element of film scoring, which is the social and psychological side of how you're dealing with people. ... And that is not always in sync with what's right for the picture.

Fernando Velazquez: I feel like Frankenstein, you know. I just come with the electric power, and then it's alive. But this can only be done if you really understand what is going on. You become the therapist of the director many times.

THR: The budget will dictate how much you have to work with, right? What do you do if you want a full orchestra and you can't get a full orchestra?

Elfman: We all learn to make do with what we have.

Danna: You have to be true to the film. You can't do something that's not there. So if part of the film is the [limited] budget, you can do a fantastic score with a small group of instruments, with six instruments, with 12 instruments or 126.

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THR: Can it actually help to have these limitations?

Danna: I think that our whole job is about limitations -- deadlines, money. There's all these limitations.

Elfman: We all know going in usually that if it's a low budget, we have to think a certain way. Silver Linings Playbook is just me twanging on things. There was no money. Even in Hitchcock, I knew I'd only have two days with a half-size orchestra to do a whole score. So I knew that. It wasn't a problem. It was actually kind of fun.

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