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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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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.