An Interview with Elliot Goldenthal by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed and Edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.79, 2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
FINAL FANTASY is the latest in a string of polished, fantasy-oriented film scores from Elliot Goldenthal, whose work graced such efforts as BATMAN FOR EVER, BATMAN AND ROBIN, ALLEN 3, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, SPHERE, and last year’s astoundingly remarkable TITUS. Classically rendered yet given a forceful dissonance expected in today’s larger-than-life fantasy epics, the score is splendidly performed by the virtuoso London Symphony Orchestra. The music doesn’t fly off into alien dissonances and atonal chaos (although he does employ his share of controlled dissonance here from time to time) but sustains itself in melody and a tonal texture that maintains an emotional, human core.
Before you got the assignment, were you at all familiar with the video game?
No, I had no idea what it was. I did know that it was a game and all of that. I went to meet the director, Hironobu Sakaguchi, and he was very earnest about what he was trying to do.
On FINAL FANTASY, what attracted them to you?
I think the fact that, according to them, I was just a step to she left of the middle-of-the-road Hollywood composer. They wanted someone unusual, someone who could give it the film an unusual quality, but who also had the ability to write tunes that were moving and human.
At what point did you enter the project?
About a year ago. It was not the real early stages; they were far enough along that I could get an idea of what the animation was eventually going to look like, and it was very impressive. And I could see the beginnings of another art form.
Now, one of the perennial problems for people in your field is when producers and directors have already decided on their musical ideas, they’ve temped the film and they say, “this is what we want to do.” Were you involved in that process?
Oh no. They used a lot of my music, but Sakaguchi was pretty forceful when it came to certain areas of the film that he didn’t want that large and orchestral, he wanted more mysterious and suspenseful; those were the kind of directions he gave. But he certainly was one of the better directors to work with in terms of having a bit of freedom.
When you finally got down to spot the film; did he have a certain vocabulary he was looking for from you? Certain qualities he was looking for to use for the film?
I think qualities, yeah. Wanting the audience to feel compassion, wanting the audience to feel a sense of romance, wanting the audience to feel afraid. Those were the kinds of qualities he wanted during this process. Wanting to feel hopeful, to feel spiritual, all those kinds of things were attached to the direction that he gave.
What kind of working process did you have when you scored FINAL FANTASY?
They’re real actors like Donald Sutherland and Ving Raimes and Steve Buscemi, etc, but the imagery that we’re watching is sort of demi-human, it’s not real. But in certain places when they’ve perfected it really well, it’s unbelievably real looking. What I wanted to do was take the romantic scenes and the emotional scenes first and try to see if I could get a handle on those, to heighten the humanness of the movie, and make the emotions seem familiar to us, so those were the things I did first.
What kind of thematic structure made up the score?
There were leitmotifs but they were mainly about conditions, like the condition of love, the condition of fear, the condition of some sort of spiritual element. There’s also a pop song that I wrote at the end… I didn’t want them to buy a pop song because I wanted the theme to be integrated into the song, so many of the themes are developed slowly and then they sort of culminate in the pop song. That way, the song doesn’t sound unusual when it comes out of the movie.
How did you decide on Lara Fabian to sing the song?
I needed a singer who had a lot of vocal ability. Because of its range, the song is not an easy one to sing. I also wanted someone who was not that well known, who might be sort of coming up and who would really put themselves into it. She certainly did that.
You recorded the score proper in London with the LSO. Was that the first time you’d worked with the London Symphony?
Yes. I’ve recorded in London many, many times but I needed a very, very large brass section. At one point I think I had 16 French horns flying in a unison passage, so I needed a British orchestra that I knew had really great brass players. It’s a very strong brass score.
It’s kind of ironic, when you think about it, since this current film, FINAL FANTASY, is very groundbreaking in its use of technology; it’s kind of ironic you chose the same orchestra that another guy used on another technologically challenging film 23 years ago, STAR WARS.
When you talk about how I feel about this movie, I’m not comparing myself to Bernard Herrmann, but comparing my choices with him in the sense that, when he would do these films that were fantastical, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, these techniques of stop-action animation and all these wonderful techniques were being developed, it was wonderful to have a composer who took their job seriously. I think for the kids now, to hear someone like myself, who takes their work very seriously, they will hear some very unusual orchestrations, some very unusual compositions, as well as things that might be more familiar. It’s nice to introduce kids to what would be considered avant-garde taken out of the movie context.
How much music did you end up writing for the film?
Somewhere around two hours.
Now the soundtrack album, which is quite lengthy, you went off and made an album of the material you thought was the most interesting?
It is lengthy, but I did some reordering of the tracks, according to how the ear might want to listen to an album, as opposed to just doing it chronologically.
What’s fascinating about this project is that when you look at your film career, it is peppered quite a bit with films of the fantastic.
I think, arguably, your major breakthrough film was ALIEN 3, in the sense that it took you into the Hollywood mainstream… And then you did DEMOLITION MAN and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE…
DRUGSTORE COWBOY was right before that. I think if I hadn’t done DRUGSTORE COWBOY I wouldn’t have gotten the job for ALIEN 3 because it had a certain mysterious hipness to it that David Fincher was attracted to.
Perhaps my own personal favorite of yours, which I don’t think a lot of people have seen, is COBB, which is this wonderful piece of Americana. I understand they actually wanted you to recycle some stuff from ALIEN 3 into it?
They didn’t want to recycle it, specifically. But they were using it for temp music, and I said, “Look, it really works great in this movie, why don’t you just acquire it because, frankly, that way I’ll at least get a chance to hear it, because I didn’t really hear it in ALIEN 3! I’m a strong believer that if something worked in another movie and if the film company wants to acquire it, I make no secrets that it came from that film. You know, Nino Rota would do that all the time, as long as it works.
In looking over your output here, you’ve been very fortunate in getting soundtrack albums out to a vast majority of your projects.
Except for BATMAN AND ROBIN! Ironic, isn’t it?!
Now let’s talk about that one for a minute. I always felt that when you came to do BATMAN AND ROBIN, you were in the same territory, obviously, the vocabulary that Danny had set with the first film, that dark, Gothic…
I never heard Danny’s stuff. But when you see a big, dark, Gothic set like Gotham City, I can imagine how Danny might have been drawn to the same sort of musical connotations, the sort of Wagnerian kind of connotations which have that Gothic, dark quality. It’s not surprising to me that people would think there’s a certain similarity.
The one thing in your output that people tend to forget about you is that you do have a gift for melody. Everyone seems to remember the bombast, but you have these…
They’d better or I wouldn’t have a career in theater!
Well, when you look at certain scores like MICHAEL COLLINS or even GOLDEN GATE, which are two different kinds of projects, there’s a lot of melody and warmth in those scores. GOLDEN GATE in particular, because it was written for a very small film with a sort of Eastern vibe to it because of the nature of the story. What attracted you to that particular film?
Again, something where I could cross-fertilize music, and I could look through my own lenses at the music from Asia and that sort of thing. BUTCHER BOYS also had a lot of beautiful melodies, as well.
ROSWELL was another one where you wrote a very beautiful score.
I didn’t like ROSWELL so much. I didn’t think it was very good music, but at least it was serviceable.
Are you a pencil and paper kind of composer, or do you use a computer?
I use whatever thing is available to me. If I’m writing a tune or I’m writing a fugue, for example, it requires pen and paper, it requires working it out. I think the computer is the best tool for working with action scenes.
In that process, do you mock up the cues for the director?
Yeah, I mock up the cues. It helps them. It gives them sort of a Polaroid of what they’re going to hear. I find that to be a very useful tool.
Your next project is a movie called FRIDA?
Yes. That’s Julie Taymor’s next movie, about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. That’s got to be melody, melody, melody.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about TITUS, which is without any question the single most insane score I’ve heard. I mean that in a positive way! It’s just so amazing and brilliant in its incredible variety of styles. That must have been just wild, trying to make that work on the recording stage.
I’ve collaborated with Julie in the theater – we’ve done over ten theater productions. So the director was prepared for that side of me. Also, the Shakespeare is pretty outrageous in itself! It’s one of his most magical realist plays. But that was a dream project. For all of us, really.
What is the moment that you think is kind of the shining moment, from that score? What’s the one you kind of point to and say, that’s pretty good?
For me, without a doubt, the boy walking out at the end. The End Titles, which is called ‘Adagio’. That took a tremendous amount of discipline to write. There are only a few images there, and it sort of keeps growing and growing and growing and it really takes its time. More of a symphonic adagio. Also the big band jazz I was very happy about.