A Conversation with Elmer Bernstein by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Portrait of Elmer Bernstein by kind permission of Rafa M. Roca
Elmer Bernstein’s recent work in cinema has included quite a few youth-oriented comedies such as ANIMAL HOUSE, STRIPES, TRADING PLACES and others, many of which have been produced by Ivan Reitman and directed by John Landis, filmmakers with whom Bernstein has established an ongoing collaboration. Many of these films have highlighted in their music popular rock and roll songs, often to the chagrin of Mr. Bernstein who has been quite outspoken in the past against the use of songs in lieu of authentic underscoring. In the following interview, conducted shortly after the release of GHOSTBUSTERS, during June, 1984, Bernstein spoke candidly about his work on that film as well as his feelings about rock music versus symphonic scoring.
You’ve done quite a few science fiction and horror films lately. It’s interesting that you started out in this very area back in the 50’s, and now you’re back at it in the post-STAR WARS trend of the 80’s.
Interestingly enough, I did a couple of films back there in the early 50’s, ROBOT MONSTER and CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, those kinds of things, and they were very important pictures for me. Way back then, I was fooling around with electronics a lot, using the Hammond organ and an instrument called the Novachord, and these pictures were important experimentally for me.
As a composer, what’s your feeling about scoring these kinds of way-out movies?
It’s a composer’s holiday, because it gives you such a wide range of things you can do and experiment with. For instance, in GHOSTBUSTERS I had an opportunity, because of the nature of the score, to employ an instrument that Yamaha makes, called the DX-7, which is a very useful synthesizer. and I used three of them. I also used a French instrument called the Ondes Martenot, which very few people play – as a matter of fact I had to import a player from England to play the instrument. It gave me an opportunity to do things of that sort.
I’m curious what impression those early (and now infamous) films like ROBOT MONSTER and CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON had on you at the time. How did you look at them as the assigned composer?
That was a very difficult time for me. I had started out well in the business in 1950 when I first came here, and I just fell on lean times at that point, and quite honestly I was doing those films because they were the only kinds of films I could do. I was disappointed that that was the best kind of film I could get; but as I said, I found them useful in the sense of creative experimentation.
I think it’s pretty unanimous that your music is practically the only redeemable aspects of those two films!
Curiously enough, at the time I did those scores, and it seems hard to realize now, but electronics in scores were virtually unknown. The use of the electronics and the way that I scored those films had a profound effect on Capitol’s recording at the time. They were recorded by an engineer named Alan Emig, who was a very important recording engineer in those days, and it started for him a whole new way of thinking about recording.
Let’s move onto GHOSTBUSTERS. You’ve worked with Ivan Reitman several times previously. How did this association begin?
I’ve done the music for every film that Ivan Reitman’s ever done. The association started seven years ago when he was an associate producer on ANIMAL HOUSE. Subsequent to that he directed his first film, MEATBALLS. It was a little film and I took a chance on it, because he didn’t have the money to pay me but I had great faith in his ability and his talent and I loved the film. I did that film and we’ve been together ever since.
How closely does Mr. Reitman involve himself in the music when you’re doing one of his films?
He involves himself to a very great degree. He himself was a music major when he was in University, and he knows something about music. He’s a very talented man when it comes to the application of music in dramatic situations, and we work very closely together. [Reitman, incidentally, has been an occasional film composer himself; he scored David Cronenberg’s THEY CAME FROM WITHIN and RABID, as well as William Fruet’s THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE, all of which Reitman produced -rdl]
How would you describe the thematic elements of your GHOSTBUSTERS score? What approach did you take in your music?
The hardest thing I had to do was to come up with a theme for the three guys. The interesting thing about GHOSTBUSTERS, as a film, is that it walks a very fine line. I think it’s basically a very original film – I don’t think anybody’s ever seen a film quite like it! – and it walks a very, very fine line. Part of it is comedy, and yet you have to take the ghost business quite seriously. You have to believe, along with these guys, that the ghosts really do exist. Therefore the score also had to work a very fine line. What I did with the theme for the guys was to get a kind of “antic” theme – it’s kind of cute, without being really way out. That was one element. The other element was the last part of the film, all that stuff with the possession and the climax on the top of the building. I treated that in an awesome and mystical way, and that was much easier to do, conceptually.
You also composed a sweeping love theme, which I like very much.
Thank you. Actually, I’m very fond of that theme, unfortunately because of the way the picture goes, there was relatively little I could do with it.
At what time during the film’s production were you brought in, and how long did you have to complete the score?
Ivan first mentioned this film to me months before he ever started to shoot it, so I was brought in before the actors were even signed. But that’s an unusual case.
It sure is. Usually you’re handed the film when it’s all done and told “I need a score in two weeks!”
That doesn’t happen with Ivan at all. It happened that way on one or two occasions with John Landis – I’ve done the music for all of his films as well. THRILLER was sort of a last-minute thing, but on the other hand, in TRADING PLACES, John brought me into that while he was still shooting.
What size or orchestra did you use on GHOSTBUSTERS?
That was done fairly consistently with an orchestra of about seventy two. It was recorded at the Burbank Studios.
Did you orchestrate the score yourself?
No, I did not. The score was orchestrated by two orchestrators, one of them was Peter Bernstein, my son, and the other one was David Spear. David’s worked for me before, he orchestrated AIRPLANE.
You mostly played it straight in your music, rather than mickey-mousing around with the humorous elements of the film. Was this a conscious decision on your part to downplay musically the on-screen humor?
This is a very funny thing. In the last seven years I’ve suddenly become the king of comedy. I’ve had, in succession, ANIMAL HOUSE, MEATBALLS, HEAVY METAL, STRIPES, AIRPLANE, and now this film. But if you examine the scores that I have written for these films I think one of the reasons that the scores work is that I do not denigrate the film. I don’t try to do anything hokey, I don’t try to make the music funny. My theory is that if the comedy is working in the film, let the film do the comedy, and let the music get behind the emotion or the action, so as to add another element. If I just made the music funny, then it’s funny on funny – so what do you need the music for?
Are you satisfied with the kinds of films you’re doing these days, in comparison with those of a few years ago in which your music was allowed greater scope?
Let me put it this way: I’m very pleased and proud to have been the composer, in six of the last seven seasons, of the highest-grossing comedy of the year. I like the idea that people with important comedies come to me to do them. But to answer your question another way, no, I’m a bit unhappy about something which really happens in Hollywood a lot, and that is if you become very prominent in one particular area, it’s very hard to do other kinds of films. I’ve had several careers; there was a period when I was considered to be a jazz composer and everyone wanted me to do jazz pictures; and there was a period when I was considered to be a Western composer, after THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, where everybody wanted me to do Westerns. Now it’s comedy! No, I would like to diversify a little bit more. I think I’m having the chance; a couple of years ago I did THE CHOSEN, which was a different kind of film, and now I’ve just been signed to do a film for Lorimer called GULAG, which is about a Soviet prison camp.
GHOSTBUSTERS and other films that you’ve done, like ANIMAL HOUSE, HEAVY METAL, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THRILLER, are dominated by rock and roll songs, with comparatively spare use of orchestral scoring. How did you approach this kind of predicament?
That’s a situation I’m really not happy with. I really don’t like it. I recognize that both John Landis and Ivan Reitman are extremely gifted men and they really have an unusual sense for the market, and I think the using of rock and roll songs is part of their awareness of the market, so to speak. Quite honestly, they do it because they think it’s going to help sell their picture. Obviously, as a composer, I don’t much care for it. I’d rather handle the whole thing myself and, ultimately, I don’t think it’s as good for the film as having a completely-composed score. But it’s very hard to argue with something like the Ray Parker song from GHOSTBUSTERS, when it is up in the top ten on the charts.
Who determines whether a given scene will use scoring or one of the rock songs?
In the case of GHOSTBUSTERS, Ivan and I had discussed this right from the beginning. Ivan had told me that he wanted to do this and we had a pretty general agreement on what areas you could best use rock and roll songs in, and in general this plan was fairly well followed. I have maybe only two disagreements in the film itself, where rock and roll was used where I don’t personally think it works very well.
One of them must be that song, “Magic”, used after the demons are released from the Ghost Busters’ headquarters and the camera pulls back to the main building. The rock music seemed very distracting there.
Yes, that was one of the places I really disagreed with. I didn’t think that helped the film at all, and I didn’t think the song was important enough, anyway. It doesn’t do that much. I think the Ray Parker thing is cute.
Yes, so do I, even if it’s very similar to another rock and roll song that’s been popular lately, by Huey Lewis and the News [“I Want A New Drug”, written by Chris Hayes and Huey Lewis, on the group’s Sports album, 1983].
Yes, that’s true.
But on the other hand, your music during the climactic scenes, this awesome music that was overwhelming and really worked, I wish they would have put more of it on the album.
Once again, here’s the problem. Arista did the album. Arista, of course, is Ray Parker! And they put all their acts on the album because they want to sell their acts – and I’m not their act. It’s very, very hard these days, and I don’t know what it’s going to take to get it back, to get just a straightforward album of movie music. Of course, from the record company’s point of view, they’ve gotten used to selling millions of albums, and you’re never going to sell millions of albums of just movie scores. But you could sell a hundred thousand.
It’s kind of ironic, having been so outspoken against the use of rock and roll scoring (as in your High Fidelity article about 12 years ago, “Whatever Happened To Great Movie Music?”), and now here you are, right in the middle of the rock and roll type music score…
Yes. Well, of course, I’m not doing the rock and roll part, although in the case of MEATBALLS I did do the rock and roll stuff. I have nothing against rock and roll, per se, I think if it’s appropriate, then fine. What bothers me is that I think it’s a shame that in a film like GHOSTBUSTERS one feels that one has to put a rock and roll tune in for public acceptance. There isn’t any real reason why GHOSTBUSTERS had to have rock and roll music – after all, it’s not FOOTLOOSE!
Any final comments on GHOSTBUSTERS?
It was probably one of the most difficult jobs I ever had to do just to, and I don’t mean this as a pun, but to find the right note. The score was not easy. It was extremely difficult. Ivan Reitman and I must have talked on the phone every single day while I was working on it, just trying to help ourselves find the right approach.