By Anita Malhotra
Hollywood film composer Charles Bernstein has written scores for more than 100 feature films, TV movies and documentaries. Drawing upon a background in classical music (including composition studies at Juilliard) and a fluency in pop, world, jazz and electronic idioms, his career has spanned the film industry’s transition from the mechanical to digital age.
His credits include scores for the Dracula spoof Love at First Bite (1979); the horror flicks Cujo (1983) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); the made-for-television drama Miss Evers’ Boys (1997); and the award-winning documentaries Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994) and After Innocence (2005). His earlier music was also used by Quentin Tarantino in his movies Kill Bill (2003) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
A long-serving member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Bernstein is also the author of two books of essays on film music and composers.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Bernstein in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 2011, shortly after he gave a seminar on film composing at the 2011 West L.A. Music Expo.
AM: Where did your love of music and film come from?
Bernstein: Last night I was with a group honoring the great actor James Earl Jones, and he told an anecdote about the first time he ever saw a film. He was a little boy of about five years old and it was in a gap between two buildings where they stretched a sheet and projected a movie. As soon as the movie came on, he dived under a bench and said, “Take those people away. Make it go away.” It scared him.
That was his first experience with a film, and mine was similar. I was in kindergarten and they were showing Tom Sawyer in the hallway on the wall outside the class. I was terrified – I looked behind the pull-down screen and I couldn’t figure out where the people were. It was creepy. Here I am making my living in film, and some of the films are even scary films, and yet my first experience was, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” But little by little the magic of being in a theatre and seeing people responding in unison was very appealing to me. People would laugh together, cry together, and where else does that happen? And then, as I grew older, the idea of using that as a place for telling stories – it’s a storytelling medium, and I love stories – so eventually the idea of being a film lover just developed.
Music developed on a much smoother path. My mom would play the piano – Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff. I’d sit under the piano and play with her feet, and just loved the music. Sometimes I’d look at her fingers dancing over the keys and it was like magic to me. So the music experience was very early and very strong. And then, of course, the two came together as time went on.
AM: How did they come together?
Bernstein: It started in little bits and fragments. The first real professional job I had was during my college years, when I scored a documentary for a friend of mine, Alan Capps. He did a movie about the Washington State School for the Blind, and I wrote a little trio for him with clarinet, piano and cello, and it just felt so comfortable. I couldn’t figure out why it felt so comfortable, and many years later I realized that my mom had accompanied silent movies before the talkies came in. She was born in 1910 and just passed away at the age of 101, and when she was a young girl she was playing the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ. So I guess I came by it naturally. But I didn’t even know that when I went into it. I pieced that together later.
AM: How did you enter the Hollywood film industry?
Bernstein: My first big Hollywood picture with a big star and a big studio was a Burt Reynolds movie directed by Joe Sargent called White Lightning.
I was in my late 20s and I got that by one person mentioning me to another. It was set in the Deep South, and I knew nothing about bluegrass music, so I very quickly educated myself. Bluegrass music is a fabulous kind of art form unto itself – a folk art form. So I hired a terrific mandolin player and some guys, and we made a demo, and I convinced the two producers, Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner, that I could do this. They brought the music to Burt Reynolds and Joe Sargent, and they both liked it and took a chance on me.
In that score I combined very loose authentic southern folk elements with orchestral elements. I hired a dobro player, a banjo player, a famous country fiddle player named Byron Berline, and I combined them with a Hollywood studio orchestra. Some of these guys couldn’t read music, so I had to work their part out independently and just point to them during the orchestra session. I’d hold up one finger meaning, “Play the first riff when I point at you” and then I’d hold up two fingers: “Play riff number two when I point at you.”
AM: Tell me about your work on Love at First Bite.
Bernstein: Love at First Bite is one of my favorite scores. Just lately we were putting together a CD of the score. I was listening to all the music in the course of putting it together for Intrada Records and it’s such a fun score. There’s this Romanian gypsy element and then there’s this film score element.
AM: Did you write some of the dance music as well?
Bernstein: Yes, I wrote two disco songs. One is called “Fly by Night,” which is appropriate for Dracula, and the other’s called “Dancing Through the Night” which is kind of a normal disco song. I wrote these two songs really quickly before breakfast one day. The whole movie is so humorous and fun. It’s very period, very ’80s.
AM: How did you get hired on A Nightmare on Elm Street?
Bernstein: I was on vacation and my agent called me and said, “Can you come back in town? I’d like you to meet this guy Wes Craven. I think you guys would hit it off because he’s kind of an intellectual and he does these horror movies.” So I met Wes, and he liked what I was doing, and he hired me. I never thought it would be a hit movie. I just thought, “Oh, this guy Freddy with razor-blade fingers – this will come and go – this is a little too out-there for the public. Little did I know, 30 years later, the president of the United States would mention him. George Bush the first was giving a speech and referred to “Freddy Krueger economics” or something. You know your movie’s on the map when the president of the United States mentions the main character in passing.
AM: In general, how do you approach a film score?
Bernstein: I try to approach each movie on its own terms and not to reference other movies or other film scores. I try to ask the movie what it wants me to do for it rather than asking myself what I can do for the movie. And then I see if I can come up with what’s needed, and of course the director also has a number of requests.
AM: Do you approach the score as a whole or as individual pieces?
Bernstein: Film scoring is the art of creating one singular score, which has many parts to it, but the parts are not the whole. The score itself has to make sense – each part has to relate to the other parts. I make the analogy of a pie. All the pieces have to be from the same pie. But having said that, you might want to serve one piece à la mode, you may want to sprinkle more cinnamon on another piece. And too often you’ll get a score where they “temp track” each section from a different movie, and you get such an eclectic score in the temporary music that it tempts the composer to imitate it, and you end up with something that isn’t as unified or powerful as those scores that really have a coherency to them.
All scores by John Williams – I say this without exception – all scores by Jerry Goldsmith, all scores by Elmer Bernstein, all scores by Ennio Morricone, have a unity within the film score itself. Each score is one pie. And I think that the art of film scoring is to let each film have its own unique taste and flavour; its own musical language and its own unique sound.
AM: How did your music end up in the two Tarantino films?
Bernstein: I had never met Quentin Tarantino. He chose some of my music for Kill Bill, and then I got a call from his music supervisor, and she said he was very interested in music from a couple of other movies – The Entity, with Barbara Hershey, and some more music from White Lightning. So I had still not met Quentin. And then I found that he’d used a good bit of my music in Inglourious Basterds.
And then, two years ago this day, I was at the event I was at last night, and Quentin was there to honor the great filmmaker Roger Corman, and that’s when I met Quentin for the first time. So we had this wonderfully happy meeting, and I told him how much I loved what he had done with my music in his picture, and he told me how much he enjoyed using the music. I think he’s a brilliant, brilliant man. His movies have a look and a feel to them unlike any other. You just know you’re in the hands of a master.
AM: When some people think of Hollywood they think of all the temptations and all the craziness. Did you find that you had to insulate yourself from that?
Bernstein: I’ve lived here most of my life. I find it to be a very family-oriented, serious-minded town, contrary to popular belief. I’ve served on the Board of Governors at the Academy for many years. All of the governors are family people, very decent and involved people – it’s just a wonderful group. I personally never experienced a lot of wild Hollywood parties or whatever the clichés are. Filmmakers are very hardworking, dedicated people, and like any profession, there are egotists and people that are more flamboyant or whatever, but I’d be hard-put to think of many people I deal with that fit that kind of a category.
AM: Of the 100 or so motion pictures and TV films and documentaries that you’ve worked on, what are the highlights of your career?
Bernstein: There have been some pictures that I have just really enjoyed and look back on fondly. One of them is the miniseries Sadat, the story of Anwar Sadat. It gave me a chance to write in a style that was very satisfying for me. I loved doing Love at First Bite. Almost every picture I’ve ever done with Joe Sargent, such as Miss Evers’ Boys with the African-American actor Alfre Woodard, Out of the Ashes with Christine Lahti, an Auschwitz World War II story – a very moving, brilliantly directed movie. I just so enjoyed working on these even though the subject matter was very painful. I’ve done some remarkable documentaries: Maya Lin, directed by Freida Lee Mock, won an Academy Award – an incredible, beautiful movie. I’ve done a number of documentaries with Freida and her husband, Terry Sanders – very fine documentarians.
AM: How has the method of film composing changed technologically since you started working in the industry?
Bernstein: I’ve had the unique perspective of coming into the film scoring world at a time when it was still the golden age. The old studio system was still intact when I first became interested, so I remember and met a lot of the old-timers. From the time I started my career until the present, the revolution of technology has changed every facet of film scoring and filmmaking.
At the beginning, the editors were working on Moviolas and I was working with pencil and paper. Little by little, over a period of 15 years, which culminated about 10 years ago, there was a total transformation from a non-computerized set of tools to a computerized set of tools, and the people who survived that change have had to change their skill-set. The editors that were cutting on Moviolas and flatbeds are now having to work in software programs like Avid and Final Cut. The cinematographers who were working in 35 millimeter now are working in digital. The composers who were recording onto analogue tape are now recording onto drives. And all of the technology that records picture, sound and everything else – including scripts – is all computerized.
I don’t think of myself as a pioneer, but I was using a lot of these tools in the early 1970s. I did show Walter Mirisch what I had intended to do with Mr. Majestyk using some fairly crude tools at the time. I had an early Moog, a few early synthesizers. People don’t know this but there were actually some consumer-grade Moog products in the ’70s – a thing called the Moog Satellite – I still have one. I had the ARP 2600 – I still have that. Nightmare on Elm Street was recorded in a home studio, which was not very common in the year 1983. I was not uncomfortable with the technology. I was usually one step ahead as it came and I was very happy to have it.
There are colleagues of mine who still write the way they did in the old days and their music is fabulous. The great John Williams writes that way. All those guys will have their people mock things up for the director, but they still write the same way. Jerry Goldsmith did. Elmer did. They write like composers, and they’re so wonderful, so there’s nothing lost by not going with the technology. But it’s harder to do if you’re working on a very low-budget, quick thing.
AM: As a film composer it’s useful to be able to draw from a wide variety of musical genres. How did you develop that ability in yourself?
Bernstein: I honestly love any music that’s good whether it’s any country, any period, any style – if it’s good and it’s made in a heartfelt and skillful manner I’ll love it. So I don’t have a lot of prejudices to start with. I also see music very much as a human expression and I don’t think of it as a bunch of styles and places and times.
I absolutely love Beethoven. I would have to say he’s the least cinematic composer, but he’s the guy I turn to when I really want to hear the string quartets, the late quartets. I know all his symphonies. I’ve spent countless hours with a symphony like the Eroica, and I’ve heard every great conductor – most of them in person, but at least recorded, on all the great Beethoven works.
AM: What instrument do you play?
Bernstein: I’m not a great instrumentalist. I play enough keyboard, as most composers do, to figure things out. I play a pretty good Doumbek, which is a little hand-drum. I played string bass for many years. When I was young I studied with the great bass virtuoso Gary Karr, who lives in Halifax, for five years. I’m not a bass player, but in those days I played orchestral bass. And then I played a little cello just for fun from my bass skills.
AM: Tell me about the world beat mass you composed.
Bernstein: All the composers through history have written masses. I don’t know why I was drawn to it but I just had to write a mass. I wanted to make it a rhythmic mass, and I wanted it to be ecumenical in the sense that it had different cultures in it – native American, Middle Eastern cultures, Greek, just a wide variety. I wanted each movement of the mass to have its own emotional connection – the Sanctus should be holy, the Credo should communicate the stability of belief, the Agnus Dei should be a cry for mercy, the Gloria should just be an absolutely all-stops-out cry of Glory to God in the highest. These are just emotional statements, kind of like film music, but I felt it really strongly. I wanted to say all of those things, said it, and then never felt the need to write anything else of this kind.
AM: Is there a particular type of film that you like to compose for?
Bernstein: What I like best is to go from vastly different project to vastly different project. I love, for example, finishing a period drama and doing a contemporary comedy and then doing a horror movie followed by a high-integrity documentary. Anything that gives me a lot of variety satisfies me. And the only other thing that really is important to me is that that I’m working with good people and that the project is of high quality. If those things are there I don’t care what genre it is.
AM: What are you working on now?
Bernstein: Right now I’m working with Lewis Teague, who directed Cujo. We collaborated on Cujo 25 years or so ago. I’ve never had a better time working on a project, mainly because it’s a super low-budget thing that Lewis has written, filmed and edited himself, and we have no studio – no boss to tell us what the music should be. It’s strictly a director-composer collaboration and it’s wacky, it’s comedic, it’s silly and it’s fun. I’ve written five songs. The style is a fusion of Spanish gypsy and techno. I love all gypsy music and all of the different musical manifestations in the different countries and different periods. So it’s fun to have the Spanish gypsy element in this movie because the main character comes from Barcelona, and there’s a sense of Spain and wild gypsy guitar in it. So I’m just having a great time with that.
For more information about Charles Bernstein, his music and his books, please visit the website www.charlesbernstein.com.
Love this article. Great interview!
Charles Bernstein was really easy to interview – and a nice guy on top of that. You might also want to check out his two books of essays, one of which contains interviews with other film composers and musicians.
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