Hollywood Film Composer

Talking to Howard Lucraft in 1997

‘Boy Wonder’ some people call him. At the age of 40, film composer Elliot Goldenthal had garnered both Golden Globe and Academy nominations for his score to ‘Interview with a Vampire’, Along the way he composed for other big pictures—‘Time to Kill’, ‘Alien 3’, and ‘Drugstore Cowboy’.

Now, this year Elliot again had a double nomination (Golden Globe and Oscar) with his background music to ‘Michael Collins’.

His first idols and influences? “Bernard Herrmann and Nina Rocca”. His musical directions? “It depends on the film.

Sometimes it has to be psychological and support the film—where the music is hardly noticed. Sometimes it has to give the impression of being terribly naïve—seemingly doing something simple–minded.”

“Every film is so different from the one before it. I have never been one for a formula.

One wants, in a positive sense, to collaborate with the producer, but . . . I have complete control. I usually tell the producer ‘this is your director and this is the one I am working with. Otherwise I don’t want any part of it.”

Elliot’s musical versatility enables him to come up always with music that is, indeed, appropriate—as exemplified by his theme in ‘Batman Forever’, which kid’s can hum.

Questioned about ‘sound effects’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ requests he informed: “Unfortunately you are always promised that sound effects will not ruin the score. Sound effects come afterwards so you have no control. If a producer wants a ‘Mickey Mouse’ score I refuse, I tell them that there are plenty of other people who could do this job”.

Reportedly Goldenthal works around the clock. Along with films he writes symphonic music, oratorios and musicals (his wife, Julie Taymor, is a well-known musical director).

Elliot’s Fire Water Paper, a symphonic tribute on the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam war, debuted by the Boston Symphony, has been especially acclaimed along with Shadow Play Scherzo, commissioned by ASCAP, in celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday.

Elliot was born and grew up in Brooklyn. As a child he studied piano. His interests included jazz and rock. As a teenager he played piano and trumpet and sang in a touring blues band. He composed a ballet at age 14 which was given a full performance at his high school. Around 1972 Elliot came under the influence of Aaron Copland, via an introduction by Leonard Bernstein. Elliot stayed at Copland’s house and they would play four hands on the piano. Elliot, in his learning process, would ask Aaron all kinds of musical questions.

Elliot’s house–painter father and seamstress mother all encouraged him in music. As a teenager he would lock himself in his room and listen to everything from Jimi Hendrix to Charlie Parker to Gustav Mahler. Citing the many classical composers who indulged in very varied outputs he claimed that it is a healthy thing for a composer to be skilled in varied and different styles.

About his creativity with tone colours Goldenthal declared: “I do my own orchestration but Bob Flhai does 50% of the physical work. I studied orchestration for many years and it’s very important that a specific instrument is playing a specific thing. Orchestration is a very important part of my sound, my music.”

“I do a sketch first, then the complete score. Recently I have discovered that computers are a big help. It’s all synchronised so that it almost seems as though you are in the same room as the performers, like a theatre.”

(Elliot has extensive theatre experience and he averred: “A theatre background is essential” for film writing).Goldenthal puts his film music on Kurzweil first (‘Polaroid’). As so many composers have discovered, this gives the director a clear ‘picture’ of the music he will finally get. It avoids any later musical disagreements. As would be expected with his young age, Elliot is both skilled and adventurous with electronic sounds. His score to ‘Alien III’ is a great example. Oftimes he uses electronics along with acoustic music. “There are electronic sounds that an orchestra could never make,” he pointed out.

He gave other examples: “When you have violins playing very high harmonics the intonation can be very poor. So, if you double it with electronic harmonics it becomes stronger. Also, sometimes a particular room does not have a good response for the bass.

The sound is there, but the microphone doesn’t pick it up. To make it (the bass sound) stronger you might want to double the bass with the synthesizer... but . . . I always think about whether this is going to subtract or add.”

Elliot is somewhat unusual in that he likes a short deadline. With rather absurd modesty he stated: “I’ve discovered that I don’t have that much talent, really. If I work on something for ten years or three weeks it’s not going to make a difference. It’s not going to get any better. No matter how many years I work on something I’m never going to get to Beethoven’s level.”

However, despite his modesty, Elliot Goldenthal is skilled in some many varied styles and areas of music, including jazz. “Jazz is like mother’s milk to me,” he averred. “It’s something I grew up with. My first big influence was Louis Armstrong. I was very, very influenced by Ellington and Mingus. I just love it all. Some of my closest friends are in the jazz world.”

Elliot pointed out that he has experimented with jazz in many of his films. He instanced ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. In the last ‘Batman’ he worked with various jazz elements. In ‘Time to Kill’ he has “post Coltrane sounds” with a musician playing tenor and alto.

“I work with Joe Lovano,” he informed. “I work with Max Roach’s daughter a lot. She plays a viola. Max and I am very close friends. Max is in good shape, he’s writing his biography now.” Although he is a Hollywood film composer Elliot lives most of the time in New York. “I need to be in a city that I can walk around. I like to be a pedestrian, not a motorist.”

Elliot particularly likes London. “I like the sound at Abbey Road. I love working with English musicians, especially the strings. They don’t play with excessive vibrato. Strings use too much vibrato in the States”.

This article was first published in Crescendo & Jazz music, June 1997.

Copyright © 1997, Howard Lucraft. All Rights Reserved