Golden Army: Crafting an Oscar contender<br />

Seven A-listers discuss crafting this year's early Oscar score contenders.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount)
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Director: David Fincher

Music is very present in David Fincher's films, but always in a nontraditional way. I suggested to David to try to put together a melody for Benjamin which would be reversible, which could play onward and backwards, and which, of course, could also go from major to minor when needed. If you listen to the music, I don't think you feel that it's reversing -- it doesn't show off -- but it does give you the feeling something is going on in the score.

There's a lot of instruments working on the movement, the clock ticking movement, going from electric guitar to cimbalom, glockenspiel and piano and Fender piano, electric instruments to acoustic instruments. There's a solo saxophone that comes along, and the love theme is played by a blend of flute, viola and alto sax, and they play the melody in unison, and it sounds like a voice of lost love.

Revolutionary Road (DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage)
Composer: Thomas Newman
Director: Sam Mendes

Sam really wanted melody. The value of a theme is, when you hear it again, it doesn't necessarily have a dramatic quality but it has a melodic quality, so it says a lot and it says a little at the same time. So because it was a movie that takes place in the '50s, he wanted it to have a more classical sound in terms of its orchestration.

When you strike notes on a piano, depending on how it rings, it can be icier and less in-your-face emotionally. There's a kind of beauty to it, but it's not nearly as emotive. There's also struck strings, sometimes dulcimer but various acoustic instruments struck with hammers or fingers. Ambient colors interest me because they're good at disappearing. The movie is very much people talking to each other, so the issue is how to get in gracefully and to be there but not be there. The question was, "Did you want to fill that space with dramatic information, and if so, what kind of information?" Finding those moments, moments that were not obvious, became a matter of taste.

Appaloosa (New Line)
Composer: Jeff Beal
Director: Ed Harris

Ed saw the movie as a character piece, and he wanted the score to give voice to these people and make the relationships authentic. It was tricky because the friendship is so strong that we did work pretty hard on making sure Ed's character and his affections for this woman are strong enough that you believe that it could divide the friendship between his and Viggo's characters.

I love stringed instruments, so, for example, the music for Renee Zellweger's character is played by cello and violin, but it became more like a little chamber piece. You wanted to feel the sense of the dirt and dust, so I worked on a little bit of sound design in my studio before we started, and I had a banjo that I started bowing with a violin bow, and it became a signature sound of the score -- it was hard to place, but it felt like it belonged there.

Milk (Focus Features)
Composer: Danny Elfman
Director: Gus Van Sant

I knew that the story was very simple and the way Gus shot it was very simple. It's not a very impressionistic, dreamy movie, so there would have to be some very simple theme that would play the heart of the emotional side of the story, which was Harvey Milk finding himself and kind of opening up and blossoming into this leader.

The titles are a very odd piece -- that was Gus' choice because there was a theme I wrote for much later in the movie, for piano and strings, and it was written for a long montage of Harvey going to work his last day and his conversation with Scott (James Franco) on the phone and Dan White (Josh Brolin). Somehow you could see that something's gonna happen: (White's) made some very negative decision in his mind -- it's him making his decision to assassinate Harvey. So for the titles Gus wanted to give a little bit of the sense of noir. Because it was this old footage it had a little bit of this noirish feel, so he said, "Take that montage music you wrote, and what if you played it with a saxophone?" So I did that, and it gave it a feeling of nostalgia.

There was always a sense working on "Milk" of it being a special thing and not wanting to screw it up. It sounds so corny, but I was honored to work on it.

Valkyrie (United Artists)
Composer: John Ottman
Director: Bryan Singer

Very much like "Usual Suspects" (1995), where it's multiple characters and dense dialogue in small enclosed rooms -- how do you keep that interesting? We found we really had to rely on the music. But the approach was to try to do something a little more modern, and I grappled with that, and I also thought it was an opportunity to do a throwback kind of score because we all revere the movies of the '70s, so I wanted to keep the classical scoring element of it alive as well.

The movie ends tragically, and it was really tough because I found that anything I chose for the end titles actually had a big impact with how the audience felt about the entire movie. I felt it had to be choral, but what should the choir be saying? We ended up finding a poem by the German poet Goethe about these little birds in the forest all falling silent, and the last line of the poem is: "Soon you too will be at rest." The problem was trying to fit the lyrics to the melody -- (it) was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. So literally the day before the session we were sitting there with music scholars from Germany, two professors from two universities literally stretching out half notes and quarter notes, trying to get the lyrics to fit the theme.

Doubt (Miramax)
Composer: Howard Shore
Director: John Patrick Shanley

John found great actors to work with, and when we started discussing music, we wanted to create a sense of authenticity for the place. We wanted the music to support the idea of doubt, so we didn't tip things one way or the other -- we wanted to create a sense of equilibrium between the characters. I did that through creating the music in a way that it has its own voice in the film, and by having its own voice, it was able to not comment on what was being discussed or characters' intentions -- it wasn't doing that so much as it was adding another layer of thinking to the film.

Some of the folk instruments I used are Appalachian dulcimer, hammer dulcimer, Celtic harp, Irish bouzouki, guitar, accordion, recorders. I had a beautiful recorder player, and woodwinds, string and piano, and we used voices in one scene as well. This was a way for me to create some of the sounds of the period and take the audience to the world of the early '60s in the Bronx.

Defiance (Paramount Vantage)
Composer: James
Newton Howard
Director: Edward Zwick

We talked about what the solo instrument would be, would there be a solo instrument, what instruments would it be dangerous to consider in terms of oversentimentalizing the situation in a story that could not afford to be sentimentalized because it was so brutal and so personal to so many people. I went down a number of roads and did some mockups with clarinet and actually some that featured a klezmer idea, clarinet and accordion and fiddle, because some klezmer music is, I think, heartbreakingly beautiful. I used a snippet of that theater music at the beginning of the end credits of the movie.

I found the action stuff very challenging because I didn't want to do a really "notey" kind of action score that I've done many times. Ed, of course, was concerned how the music would sit with all the noise of guns and tanks. But I think we ended up in a pretty good place. I'm forever finding the better solution is often to write less, and there were certainly places where I let loose a little bit more and was unabashedly thematic and emotional, but I felt it was supportive of what went on on the screen.