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June 4, 2004
Film Composers Seminar at Disney Hall
Elmer Bernstein and James Newton Howard compare techniques
by Jon Burlingame

Two of Hollywood's finest composers shared surprisingly different approaches to their craft at a recent seminar held at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven) compared notes with James Newton Howard (The Sixth Sense, The Fugitive) in an hour-long conversation moderated by fellow composer Cynthia Millar. It was part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's series "Inside/Outside: The Shape of Music in Los Angeles."

Both admitted that, prior to their involvement with Hollywood, movie music didn't much interest them. Bernstein, who began as a concert pianist in New York, said he was "fairly snobbish about film music" although he was intrigued by the progressive sounds of David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann; Howard, a rock 'n' roll artist who played keyboards for Elton John in the 1970s, "never paid a lot of attention to film music."

Bernstein lamented today's lack of strong musical voices at each studio (Morris Stoloff at Columbia, Alfred Newman at Fox, Johnny Green at MGM in the 1950s). "You had terrific support, and they took the heat," he remarked. "I had the great fortune to be here at the right time."

Howard noted that, of late, "the more enlightened directors" – such as M. Night Shyamalan, with whom he is currently scoring The Village – had been hiring him prior to production, enabling him to "do a lot of composing before the movie is shot."

Bernstein, on the other hand, said "I don't trust anything that anybody tells me. For me, the film is the thing. I have to see the film... The atmosphere of the film informs me" and, he said, guides his choices as a composer.

Howard pointed out that, by being on the film early, he can sometimes avoid the temp-track trap. The first music that accompanies the images often "imprints" on directors' minds, he said. To most directors, orchestral music is "just classical music" and they are not familiar with it.

"The sound of a symphony is alien to a lot of present-day filmmakers," Bernstein agreed. He shook his head over "the degree of ignorance that exists" about the effective use of music to elicit emotional responses from audiences.

Howard said that he has had "fewer cues thrown out" because of the synth mockups he creates as he writes the score and which he previews regularly with the directors in his studio.

Bernstein does not create mockups, and won't look at a film with a temp track. He will demonstrate themes at the piano for directors, however. "I'm really protected by my history," he explained (and that history includes an Oscar, 13 additional nominations and more than 150 scores over 50-plus years in Hollywood).

Both men talked about seminal director-composer relationships they have enjoyed. Bernstein cited Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) and John Landis (a series of comedies beginning with Animal House), among others. His favorite films, he said, were "sensitive emotional pieces" and the "great outdoors" movies.

Five-time Oscar nominee Howard, now doing his fourth film with Shyamalan, said the director "makes very porous movies – quiet, contemplative," and specifically designs sequences to be music-driven. He added, however, that for one 17-minute sequence in Signs he had to create 43 versions over four months.

Post-production schedules have shrunk in recent years, Howard reported. Often he is expected to write 80 minutes of music in five weeks. By comparison, Bernstein recalled that he took six weeks just to come up with the theme for To Kill a Mockingbird.

About 100 people attended the seminar.

© 2004 Jon Burlingame

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