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"You Never Know How to Do It"

An Interview with Elmer Bernstein

by Jason Comerford

Elmer Bernstein celebrated his 76th birthday on April 4, but from the look of him, you'd never know it. There's a twinkle in his eye when he talks about his profession; his New Yorker voice is strong, and his handshake almost stronger. Bernstein has spent 47 years in film music, and to hear him spin a tale about his humble beginnings, his career highs and lows, and his overall experience, you come away from the encounter knowing that you've just encountered a unique individual.

Bernstein was at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the week of the film school's grand gala celebration of its opening of its new filmmaking facilities, and gave a series of master classes and forums for interested filmmaking and music students. I had the pleasure of attending both of his master classes, and also of interviewing him during his all-too-brief stay.

Personal Relationships

"Different stages of my career have been different," Bernstein says in regards to his relationships with various directors over the years. He first cites director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula as one of his most memorable collaborations. "We would get together long before the film was even made to discuss the score, and talk all the way through it. We'd talk even as the film developed." Mulligan, of course, directed Bernstein in his scores for Fear Strikes Out, To Kill a Mockingbird, Love With the Proper Stranger, and Baby, the Rain Must Fall. Of these, Bernstein cited the latter as the least successful experience, because of problems with the Horton Foote screenplay and with its tempestuous performers.

Bernstein also singled out John Sturges as another important creative collaborator. "With Sturges, it was different than with Mulligan. Sturges would meet with me, early on in the preproduction of the film, and sit down and tell me the story of the film. Which was really great, because he was a hell of a storyteller. And while he would tell you the story of the film, he'd inspire you. And that was it. I usually wouldn't see any more of him until the scoring sessions." Bernstein contributed some of his most famed scores for Sturges, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Hallelujah Trail.

Most recently, Bernstein cited joint ventures with Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose, Lost in Yonkers) and Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem, Hoodlum) as very successful pairings. The most successful of them all, however, have been his collaborations with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. "They're both very, very knowledgeable, not just about filmmaking but also about music, which means they can really articulate what they're looking for in the music." Bernstein scored The Rainmaker for Coppola, and scored The Age of Innocence for Scorsese; these were experiences where, as Bernstein says, "you learn from them." (Bernstein also says that he would have scored Scorsese's recent Kundun, were it not for the Dalai Lama, who actually wanted Philip Glass to write the music for the film.)

About Bernie

Most notable amongst Bernstein's credits in recent years was his adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's original score to Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake. For that particular job, Bernstein noted that the music was completely re-orchestrated, and often times cues were moved around; cues which appeared in some places in the original film actually seemed to work better in other scenes in the remake. "There was a lot of connective music written as well," Bernstein notes. "For instance, the 'Main Title' cue was actually about half Herrmann and half of my own music. We also interpolated his rejected score to Torn Curtain in there too."

Herrmann, as it turned out, recommended Bernstein to Alfred Newman, way back in the early 1950s, for one of his first composing jobs, for a romance called Miss Robin Crusoe. "Bernie, as you probably know, could be a rather terrifying person," Bernstein remembers. "And when I did the Herrmann album, about six months before he died [in 1975], he and Christopher Palmer and I all went to dinner and talked about it. And as it turned out, he was really happy with it."

"A very strange experience"

Bernstein confesses to be unfamiliar with Joel McNeely's rerecordings of Herrmann's work, knowing him only as "a composer, a good one." His own experiences with rerecording his classic scores (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have been "very strange. You get very objective when you step up there to conduct it. It's like, 'I wrote this?'" Bernstein describes working with the RSNO as a very pleasant experience, and has nothing but high words for their range and ability.

Hanging Out on the Cutting Edge

Most notable in Bernstein's entire body of work is surely his jazz scores from the 1950s and 1960s, particularly The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962). "The thing about these jazz scores wasn't just the music," Bernstein notes. "It was the nature of the score and the nature of the subject [of the film]. The sound and visuals just gives everything a violent energy that's completely integral to the atmosphere of the films." Bernstein notes that until then, jazz was a medium that existed, but not in film music: "Alex North and myself were really the first people to try it out, and it turned out that it worked terrifically, not only because of the musicality of everything but because it fit with the films so well." Bernstein notes that in The Man With the Golden Arm, the main character played by Frank Sinatra has an aspiration to become a jazz drummer, and that the score augments his desires.

Bernstein's "other" legacy is sure to be his revamping of the approach to comedy scoring, particularly for John Landis on National Lampoon's Animal House, and for the Zucker brothers' free-for-all comedy classic Airplane! Interestingly enough, scoring Animal House in a straight-faced, deadpan manner was not an idea that Bernstein originally had. "That was really an idea that John Landis had," Bernstein says. "He thought it would be a lot funnier if we had a very serious, classical score to go along with the movie, and, as it turned out, he was right." Bernstein describes his experiences on Airplane! to be even more "seriously funny": "For Airplane! I just went all out, doing all these different, mock-dramatic things for the score."

Bernstein notes that his ability to move between genres with equal success comes from belief that "doing different things is invigorating. It gives you a new challenge. There's always a danger that when you sit down to score a film, you'll say, 'I know how to do this!' Because you never know how to do it."

"I've had the luck to be on the edge of several different movements [in film music]," Bernstein notes. "I've managed to have written a lot of cutting-edge scores, like The Man with the Golden Arm and The Magnificent Seven and Animal House. He attributes his longevity and success in the business to being at the right place in the right time, with the right ideas.

For Better or For Worse?

"There's always a danger when film music is commercialized," Bernstein says when asked about the burgeoning popularity of film music, thanks in large part to James Horner's controversial score to Titanic. "The responsibility is to the film, and not to the music charts." Bernstein goes on to say that while he doesn't think Horner's score is one of his better works (he's quick to name Field of Dreams as his personal favorite Horner score), he thinks that Horner's music was successful in striking a chord with the audiences, as did the film.

But Bernstein remains optimistic. He notes that "artistic values never change in film music. What changes is the language." His stance on the increasing popularity of so-called "contemporary elements" in film music, as popularized by Eric Serra and Hans Zimmer, is that it should be suitable for the film, and stay away from having a sameness in sound and feel. "I often get asked by producers when I start to score a movie, 'You're not going to use electronics, are you?' Because people are almost afraid nowadays of them." He notes that while one of his favorite musical "colors" is the electronic Ondes Martenot, his palette often times consists of purely acoustic elements.

Elmer Bernstein describes himself as "musically conservative," an almost curious statement from a man who is known for taking musical chances throughout his celebrated career. Even at 76, he looks to be far from ready to slow down; with two scores under his belt already this year (Twilight and the upcoming The Deep End of the Ocean), he is still out there, chomping at the bit.

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