Interview with Elliot Goldenthal
Every year in october the Flanders International Filmfestival takes place. This festival pays much attention to the arts and crafts of filmmusic. Each year there is a concert and occasionally there is a seminar. In 1999 Elliot Goldenthal was present at a concert of his own music. In 2000 the composer returned to attend the Hans Zimmer concert, to perform as a guest speaker at a composers workshop and, together with his wife Julie Taymor, to present her film Titus .
(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)
How did you enjoy your own concert last year?
EG: Very much. I was supposed to conduct, but at the last minute I decided not to. It was very enjoyable, great working with the musicians. Last year it was a very different concert hall. I don’t think they’re using the same concert hall this year. But the musicians were fantastic and I enjoyed myself.
Are you going to see Hans Zimmer in concert?
EG: Oh yes. Old friend of Hans, so I’ll be there.
Tomorrow you’ll be speaking at a seminar about composer-director relationships. Is working with Julie Taymor different from working with any other director?
EG: No, I don’t think so. In a way it’s easier, because if you don’t have a good you are a little more forgiven, possibly. But it’s the same way with any working relationships. I’ve worked with directors over and over again many times. When you work many times with one director you develop a certain dynamic in your working relationship, so with Julie it’s no difference. The difficulty with Titus of course is working with Shakespeare, because the dialogue is so dense and the acting performances have to come first. Also, the dialogue is verse, which is music. In essence you’re composing music to music that’s already written.
Can that be confusing?
EG: No, not confusing, but it’s a challenge. You have to be very careful so that you’re not in the way, or, you have to treat the dialogue like counterpoint to the music as opposed to take it into your own direction.
When working with Julie do you get your way easier than with other directors?
EG: Oh no! No, I don’t think so. I any professional relationship you develop a trust with the person you’re working with. Trust meaning that they’ll give you at least the option of recording what you’re doing and letting your ideas come alive. But at the same time, you’re working with a director who has a particular vision, like any other director, and you have to yield to the directors vision. You can not say: this is what I want to do in your film. So, there’s no difference.
Could you describe your relationship with Joel Schumacher, with whom you did several movies?
EG: Well, you develop a trust, a professional relationship. As you go on you may not have to use as many words, or proof to that person that you’re going to solve the problem. Everybody’s personality is different of course, but it’s the same dynamics that happens, which I suppose is trust.
Most of your music is very dark in nature and sound. Will we ever hear something light, say a romantic comedy?
EG: I don’t think everything is dark. There’s certainly been a lot of dark subject matter. I think I’m just reacting to the subject matter. I don’t prefer to work in the cinema if it’s a romantic comedy, because usually it doesn’t create a canvas for the composer to be very expressive.
Has this got anything to do with your classical background?
EG: May, maybe not. I also grew up with jazz, blues, rock and Jimmie Hendrix. This is my generation and it’s music that I listen to and enjoy. I think it’s just certain projects that allow composers to be fully expressive. Other projects limit the composer. I wrote very light music in The Green Bird , the Broadway play by Julie Taymor, which is a commedia dell’ arte , written by Carlo Gozzi who also did The Love Of Three Oranges and Turandot .
Can you tell me more about The Green Bird?
EG: It’s by Carlo Gozzi. His work is in a commedia form, so there’s a lot of improvisations by the actors. It’s basically about many many miraculous transformations. Without going into much details it’s The Love Of Three Oranges part two! [laughs] It’s the same characters, but they now journey further and experience different transformations.
How about future non-filmmusic projects? I read a long time ago about an opera called Grendel?
EG: Yes, we’re just trying to find the right forum for it. I don’t want to… life is too short to write an opera to put it in your drawer and never perform it, when there are opportunities for me to write other works that can be performed.
Is it a difficult project?
EG: Everything is difficult, for me everything is difficult.
As an experienced composer shouldn’t things eventually get easier?
EG: No. Someone once said: “Experience is like an arch, where through gleams that uncharted world whose margins fade forever and ever as we move towards it.” So, experience only helps in certain bits of craft, but it doesn’t really make things easier.
What would be the hardest project you’ve ever worked on?
EG: Any next one [laughs].
It’s always the last one, right? Can you tell me about your concert work Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio? Could you explain your approach on this subject?
EG: It’s very personal in the sense that the subject matter is very large, it’s all-encompassing, when you talk about war or the Vietnam war in specific. I took it from the woman’s point of view. In Vietnam, this country is both Buddhist and Catholic, in 1967 a woman called Nhat Chi Mai, stood on a pagoda in Saigon with a rope and a piece of paper. She had a picture of Quan Yin, the Buddist God of mercy, in one hand and a picture of the Virgin Mary in the other. And she wrote “I want to use my body as a torch, to dissipate the darkness, waken love among men and to bring piece to Vietnam ” and she set herself on fire. This is the way into the story. The first 30 minutes of the work is entirely female. And at the same time I used old Buddist texts that referred to fire and femininity. As well as the Stabat Mater, that also has that same feeling as “I wan to use my body as a torch”, devoted to a life of feeling and pain. Which is torture, really. So I felt that the two works could work together quite well.
How long did you work on the score?
EG: About a year.
I’d like to talk about Alien 3 a bit, since many people consider it to be their favorite Goldenthal score.
EG: It was particularly favored by people in The Netherlands. I saw a Dutch movie called Character , which won a 1998 Oscar for best Foreign Film and my score to Alien 3 was in it! [laughs] Sadly they didn’t pay me or give me credit, but my score, if you like that score, is there!
The movie Alien 3 suffered from rewriting and re-editing. Did your score suffer as well?
EG: The movie did indeed suffer! The score suffered from bad sound. There was another half hour of film and it really was a good movie before they re-edited it. They were afraid of the length, because it was originally almost three hours. In its original form the movie was much, much better.
What was your approach on Alien 3? It sounds very different from the first two.
EG: I didn’t listen to the first two. The approach to Alien 3 was that, we knew everybody was probably going to die. In film there usually is a chase at the end. But now, 90 percent of the movie we have people running from things, so it was almost 1 hour and 25 minutes of chase music. I had to find ways to make it unusual and different.
It sounds religious!
EG: Well it had a religious theme. It is about a colony of prisoners that have developed their own brand of religion in this prison in space.
Is there a big difference in filmmusic and music for the concert hall or opera?
EG: Yes. In filmmusic you have a prescribed set time in which you have to make your statement. If a film is traveling at 24 frames per seconds and someone decides to make a change at the 19th frame, than that’s where the music has to exactly hit. If something happens on the third beat of a measure, but the music doesn’t change, it will never change. In the theatre it can change every day, unless you click track it. In theatre and opera you can develop something as long as you want, there’s no set time. In ballet you’re bound by the human physicality. If you write a pas de deux that lasts for 25 minutes, that’s a problem because people can’t dance for 25 minutes at the time. You have to think about the limitations of the flesh when you write for ballet.
Do you use a computer and sequencer?
EG: When working on film I find the computer and sequencer very helpful, very useful when you need to hit exact spots. If you’re working on a fugue or a counterpoint, anything away from the film, it is fine to use a pencil and paper. But when you’re working on something like Alien 3 , where everything has to be exact, there’s no room for imagination in a sense because it has to hit exactly, that computer is very helpful. It’s also a very good notebook. You can write 30 or 35 variations on something and it will remember.
What attracts you in filmmusic when it is so very limited?
EG: Limitations are a good thing. It’s very comforting to have limitations. The most frightening thing in the world is to be able to do anything you want and there is no limitations! [laughs]
Many thanks to Elliot Goldenthal and to the Flanders International Filmfestival.