An Interview with James Bernard by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.15/No.58, 1996
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
You’ve just finished composing a new score for a video cassette reissue of the classic German horror film, NOSFERATU. How did you get involved in this project?
A company in Houston, Texas (Tanis Film), got the world rights to NOSFERATU and they wanted to put it out on a video cassette in connection with a film museum in Munich. I’ve read that their version of NOSFERATU is the longest version there is, and it’s color-tinted. They wrote to Silva Screen Records to ask if they could use music they’d already recorded from my previous DRACULAs and stuff from that first CD that Silva Screen did of music from the Hammer films. David Stoner very wisely replied to them that he didn’t think this was a good idea, because the music was very much connected in the film fan’s minds with Christopher Lee. I think he was quite right about that. It would have confused people. And, secondly, he pointed out that it would have involved enormous re-use fees to the Philharmonia Orchestra, etcetera. So David told Tanis Films that I was alive and kicking, and what would they think of a new score which would come out considerably less expensive? They thought this was a good idea, and so that’s how it came about.
How did you go about scoring the film?
I was sent a copy on cassette with all the timings on it, so I just got down to it, and started. I started at the beginning of January (1995). I’ve never seen the film before; actually, I’d always meant to but never had, so it was all completely new to me. The subtitles of the film at that time were in German – I don’t speak German, so I had to get a German dictionary and try and translate the various bits to myself, which had some hilarious results! But I think I got the gist of it!
I went through the entire movie and wrote out in longhand exactly what happened in every scene, plus the sort of essential timings where big moments happened, and then proceeded to compose. Tanis Film had said I could have as long as I needed, which was very nice. It’s the first time I’ve ever done a job like that! All agreed that it should be composed for symphony orchestra. I decided that it needed to be treated just like one of the Hammer horror movies, and that it needed exact timing – exact synchronization over much of it, because I know that sometimes when people have added scores to silent movies they haven’t worried too much – or so I’m told. They just let the music go through, but I thought it would be more effective in this instance to have music which did absolutely fit the essential moments.
So I timed it all out and did the composing in short score for piano, but sometimes on three or four or even five staves of music. The composing and the timing took me January, February and March, and then I started the orchestrations at the beginning of April, they took me just over six months. The score runs eighty-nine minutes 47 seconds, so it’s quite a large job!
How long does the movie run altogether?
Exactly that, because there’s no sound in it at all, of any kind. So I start the music at the very beginning, and go on until the very end. It’s divided up into twenty-six sections, and my full score is 430 pages!
How would you describe the music?
Well, obviously it’s symphonic, as I’ve told you. I have my usual kind of ideas, I suppose. Count Orlac has a theme – he has about three themes, but they all go to the rhythm of Nos-fer-a-tu.
Kind of like the DRAC-u-la idea?
Exactly. It seemed to go well. That rhythm has about three different melodic outlines, according to whether he’s being thoroughly sinister and about to have his way with somebody, or if he is pleading and sort of calling to Ellen, which is the name of the lady who was, of course, Mina in the original. He’s done sort of thought-transfers to her, and hypnotizes her from the distance. The same rhythm has a completely different tune. Ellen, the wife who sacrifices herself at the end, has a full, romantic theme, scored almost always for strings, because I wanted to retain the brass mostly for Orlac. Then her husband, the hero, who’s called Huttar in the film, but of course is actually Jonathan Harker, he has a theme all his own. It comes in the beginning where he’s picking flowers for his wife, and it’s a very happy, open, tonal tune. David S. toner told me it sounds like a German folk tune. It just a very simple, happy tune.
The film is built on the various themes. When Count Orlac is sailing for Bremen across the Black Sea and you’ve got various shots of the ship, and he slowly decimates the entire crew, I have a variation of his theme – I’ve opened all the brass instead of having them muted, so there’s this kind of sea theme but it all comes from the Nosferatu theme. Basically, I think the score is fairly melodic.
Are we going to have any of the characteristic horror music that we identify with the Hammer scores that you’ve done?
Oh yes, I would think so! I’ve tried what I hope will be some frightening orchestral effects.
How large of an orchestra will the score use?
If we get the numbers that I would like it’s not enormous, it’s about 73, I think. I want to have as many strings as we can, hopefully 14 first violins, 12 second, 8 violas, 8 cellos and 6 double bases. That’s 48 strings to start with. And I’ve got 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, but no horns – it didn’t need them, I always felt they were a romantic instrument.
Any electronic instruments being used?
What would you consider to be the biggest challenge of this score?
I suppose the challenge would be just its sheer length, and the fact that it is never broken up with dialog or any other sound effect. I thought that I’ve got to be on top form, throughout. I couldn’t slack off at any moment. With this movie I felt that every note is going to be heard, absolutely distinctively, and every note must count.
I’ve always felt the challenge of scoring a silent film is because there’s nothing else except the visual, so the composer is entirely responsible for building up the emotional link with the audience and the sheer drama.
How did that fact as well as the impressionism – the style of the film – affect your score?
Well, I don’t know if I can quite explain that. It just affected me as I think any movie I’m writing a score for would. I had to let myself get utterly involved with it so that I could enhance the emotions of the characters, particularly Ellen, who is becomes a kind of tragic figure at the end The end of the film made me think, in a different way, of the end of the opera La Traviata. Of course in this instance it’s her husband, not her lover, but he’s hurrying to get to her and he arrives and she collapses in his arms and then she falls dead – I thought it had an operatic feeling. The music simply came by being completely involved in the story, and trying to portray the conflicting emotions – the fear and the horror and the brief moments of happiness – of the various protagonists.
An interesting thing about your earlier scores, particularly THE HORROR OF DRACULA, is the way the various themes worked together, played off each other, combined at moments and moved apart as the characters changed. Have you consciously tried for the same kind of thematic interplay here – some almost subliminal thematic variations to hint at things?
I would think so, yes. Certainly I have. And there are other strange moments. There’s a scene where the old professor (the Van Helsing character) is giving a science class, demonstrating a Sun Dew plant which closes on insects, and he says, “After all. it’s really a form of vampire.” And there’s another scene where he has a tiny octopus in a tank, and I thought, “What’ll I do here?” Do I bring in something completely different, something like a little bit of Schubert chamber music playing in the background, or something? I toyed with that, but then I thought “no. there isn’t time” and so I reduced the orchestra for those two bits to a string quartet, to make it sound like chamber music – two violins and two violas. But I still used a variation on my Nosferatu theme – a tiny little chamber version of Count Orlac, the vampire.
And then of course there’s the character in the film who is called Knock, who is Renfield, the servant of Dracula. There’s another theme that comes in at the very beginning, it’s just a sort of weird, mysterious theme which was a strange, almost whole-tone scale, more or less, and it has hardly a beginning and hardly an end. It’s a sort of mysterious theme where you don’t know what is going to grow out of it. It’s also related to the Nosferatu theme, in actual fact. But it’s a general, sort of mysterious theme which comes all through the film, although less and less toward the end.
Are you going to be conducting the orchestra?
No, no, I never conduct! I’m a hopeless conductor – it would be a disaster! I’ve never conducted. I tried it in school and I realized from the word go that it was simply not my thing. We aren’t sure who will be conducting yet. Silva Screen has undertaken to do all the musical side of it. They have three or four conductors whom they use all the time, so I imagine one of them will be used, but I don’t know who yet.
I imagine they’ll issue a recording of the score on CD?
I think their plan is certainly to do a CD and maybe a double CD, depending on what they think will be best. I should think one CD should be quite enough!
You did a music for a stage adaptation of Dracula some years ago, didn’t you?
Yes, it was while I was in Jamaica, where we had a very good local acting society with whom I appeared – I fulfilled my lifelong desire to be an actor, and I played the older man in SLEUTH. They did a production of DRACULA and asked if they could use my music, so we used some. But it was only a local amateur production, and I didn’t think anybody would mind if we used some bits which I had on tape, and I sort of edited it for them and cut it together, but that’s all it was.
How did it feel to get back into film scoring after being away for so long?
It seemed like coming home, really. I think we all make mistakes in our lives, and I think I probably did make a mistake by going to live in Jamaica, which ended very sadly for me with my great friend being murdered while I was away in England. So in a way, suddenly, to come back after all that and do films has been a wonderful life saver for me. Largely due to Silva Screen, who wrote to me in Jamaica and asked me about doing the first ‘Music From the Hammer Films’ CD, and they’ve been great support throughout – I cant speak too warmly of them for their encouragement. And then of course, I’ve had several recent visits to Hollywood, where I got a wonderfully warm reception and found there was still a lot of interest in my music, and people were delighted that I reappeared on the scene and was still around.
Is there a chance you’ll do some more original scoring after this one?
I’d very much love to. I had some very nice meetings with the people in California. People made very encouraging noises to me. They know I’m there and they know I’m on the market.
I think it’s unique that it’s a Dracula film that brought you back in to the business of film scoring, because that’s what brought you your greatest fame… What do you think of your sort of lifelong relationship with the vampire Dracula?
I don’t know! Must have been intended, I suppose!