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

The scorers of "Life of Pi," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Silver Linings Playbook" convene for a candid glimpse inside the creative process of bringing movies to life through music.

THR: Fernando, did you know what limitations you were dealing with going into The Impossible?

Velazquez: Yeah, we knew. I mean, we knew it would be impossible. (Laughter.) And it was -- that's why we worked so hard to get it. But I feel I'm addicted to this challenge, really. Even when they'd say, "The orchestra will be smaller, and we have even less time," there's something strange that I like about the challenge.

THR: What are the pros and cons of temporary music? Are there any pros?

Elfman: For me, there's no pros. It's just something that has to be dealt with, and it's my job to make the director forget everything he's heard in the temp. I won't listen to it but once. And if they're addicted to it, it's just gonna make my job harder. I often dream about what it must have been like in Bernard Herrmann's days where he wrote the theme on the piano, and Hitchcock wouldn't even hear it until they were on the recording stage. For me, temp music is the bane of my existence.

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Desplat: It's getting worse and worse, I feel.

Elfman: This year, for the first time in many, many years, I did a film called Oz: The Great and Powerful, which I just finished, I had the luck that nobody liked the temp. And thank you, God, because I've never written faster or more easily.

THR: What is the pain level like, generally, when you're working on a score and it's not coming easy?

Danna: It's fun the day you get the job. You tell all your friends. And then it's fun when you go to the premiere.

Elfman: I'm guessing we can all agree that there's a certain amount of what we do that's like childbirth ... it can be quite agonizing but if it comes out OK, you kind of forgive the agony.

Beltrami: We're addicted to it because there are moments that are actually quite sublime and beautiful. All the pain that it takes to get there somehow becomes worth it, in the best of circumstances.

Danna: You have that bond with that director like you have with your wife, who you have children with. There's no woman you will ever feel that kind of feeling for as someone who you share a child with. It's the same you feel with the director. ... That might be a weird analogy. (Laughter.)

Desplat: Most of them I don't want to have a child with.

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THR: What do you listen to when you're not composing or between jobs? Do you listen to other music, or is it a distraction?

Elfman: I have to listen to something -- the antithesis of what I've been doing -- when I go to sleep, or I'm screwed. If I'm working on orchestral music, I'll listen to nothing orchestral. I might put on Radiohead or some music from Africa or something that is so far from what I'm working on that it'll hopefully, with luck, take it out of my mind. I unfortunately think I'm working while I'm sleeping, meaning I pick up in my dream exactly where I left off and imagine that I'm writing 32 more bars of it.

Danna: I'm so glad you said that. I thought I was crazy.

Doyle: Danny is like Dr. Phil!

Danna: Well, I am crazy. I am like all you guys.

Doyle: There was one time I was driving home, and my face was very painful. I discovered that the entire journey I had a pencil in my mouth. And I thought it was something with my jaw. That's the state you get into.

THR: Do you consider yourselves workaholics?

Doyle: Compulsive.

Desplat: Like every artist, I guess.

Elfman: There's no choice.

Doyle: He said it. No choice.

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Elfman: My family calls me a workaholic, and I go, "No, I'm not, because I don't love working." A workaholic loves to go to work. And if they have nothing to do, they'll go to work. If I have nothing to do, I don't go to work. I love watching old movies on television or reading a book. But we have deadlines. We all have to deliver. That's a primary directive of every composer: We have to deliver.

THR: Was there a score or piece of music that changed your life and made you want to get into film composing?

Desplat: I've always wanted to be a film composer since I was 16 or 17. It was really a passion I had for cinema and music that were merging. And I could stay in the theater the whole afternoon long, because the movies would be free. I could stay and listen to the music again and again.

Velazquez: I've been playing in orchestras for my whole life. The experience of music itself is overwhelming, and I couldn't imagine life without it. I vividly remember the first time I worked with Juan Antonio Bayona, the director of The Impossible. We did the music for his short film. It was the very first time I was conducting an orchestra. I just did it, and it was amazing. This really made [me] an addict to this forever.

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Elfman: When I was 12, I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it was the first time I noticed film music, Bernard Herrmann, and it made me a fan for life, but it never occurred to me to do scoring as a job. It just never occurred to me that it was possible. And I think that that was the great injection. That was the heroin. The first shot's free, as they say -- and you're hooked for life.

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