Some of the year’s most ambitious scores were penned by composers who have been down the red carpet before. Two are past Oscar winners and two others are past nominees, but while their individual approaches differ, all four continue to top the town’s list of those who deliver musical inspiration on demand.
“I’m looking for everything to feel a little lighter and more delicate before bar 60,” Danny Elfman tells conductor Pete Anthony via intercom.
Elfman’s in the recording booth, Anthony on the podium before the 89 musicians recording “Charlotte’s Web” on the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox.
“Sweet but light, very light,” Elfman adds.
The cue, numbered 3M3B, is for a critical scene in which spider Charlotte weaves an especially intricate web.
The music is graceful, balletic and — with a synth choir that will later be replaced by real human voices — downright magical in the tradition of Elfman scores such as “Edward Scissorhands.”
The composer, informally clad in his trademark T-shirt, striped sweatpants and sneakers, reviews a copy of the score and occasionally checks notes on a miniature keyboard propped on the mixing console.
Director Gary Winick sits beside him, quietly offering comments about each cue while the unfinished picture plays on two monitors mounted in the wall before them. Orchestrators Steve Bartek and Edgardo Simone stand nearby, often conferring with the composer about musical details.
Elfman’s wife, actress Bridget Fonda, stops by with their 17-month-old son Oliver. Doting dad carries the boy out to watch the orchestra play up close.
Later, Elfman explains why he said yes to the Christmas pic based on the E.B. White classic: “It’s a story that I remember reading to my children. It had a sad ending and that gave me a great affinity for it. It’s also an opportunity to work in the classic mold, in the style of the great lyrical, melodic scores that I grew up on.”
Adds Winick: “I wanted to make a classy, truthful, honest kids’ film, because the story deserves that. Danny’s music is beautiful and melodic, but it’s not sentimental. It’s amazing to see how much he cares about everything and how passionate he is about the work.”
This year, the Oscar winner (“The Lion King”) scored “The Da Vinci Code,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “The Holiday.” He spent nine months on “Da Vinci,” creating an orchestral and choral score while attempting to avoid religious-movie cliches.
Director Ron Howard asked Zimmer to give him “an epiphany” in the music. “The movie is really a thriller up to a certain point, and then it becomes an emotional journey,” the composer says.
With medieval-music specialist Richard Harvey conducting, Zimmer recorded more than two hours of music in London with members of the King’s Consort choir often singing in Latin, although in the final mix the words are “really disguised,” sometimes whispered or mumbled, Zimmer says.
An augmented cello and bass section provided especially dark colors. To add a period feel, Zimmer used several viols, Renaissance-era stringed instruments that have, the composer says, “a spartan, chilling quality.”
Zimmer’s Remote Control Prods. is unlike any other L.A. composer’s studio. Home base for several other composers, its 35-person staff includes music editors, programmers, recordists and software designers. “We build our own technology, things that nobody else has access to,” Zimmer says. “It’s about pushing the whole art of filmmaking forward. A lot of that has to do with inventing and designing technology that lets you do things in a more efficient and imaginative way.”
The seven-time Oscar nominee found scoring “Little Children” especially challenging. “It’s this weird razor’s edge of sincerity and satire,” he says. “How do you allow for one without hurting the other?”
Often, he adds, the trick was to “try and remain as neutral as possible.” Rare exceptions included Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson’s pool scenes, where a bit of warmth creeps in and the music indicates that, “on a certain level, people who are making bad choices still are capable of lovely feelings.”
Newman himself plays the piano in many parts of the score, with several unusual sounds created by his core group of regular musicians (playing guitars, percussion, woodwinds and more offbeat instruments).
“The Good German” demanded a much more traditional, big-orchestra score to match the ’40s-era Warner Bros. look and feel created by director Steven Soderbergh. The temp score was largely drawn from old Max Steiner music of the era. “The issue was, how do you preserve a sense of style and still allow the movie to play out, help clarify the drama? My intention was to help an audience remain interested,” Newman explains
Working with a 90-piece orchestra and recording on the old soundstage of his father, Alfred Newman, at 20th Century Fox, Newman scored the postwar thriller in a unique way that suggests the Golden Age of Hollywood in style and sound, but is actually quite contemporary in terms of the writing itself.
While “All the King’s Men” called for a more traditional score, “Apocalypto” demanded one of the year’s most unorthodox. A double Oscar winner for “Titanic” (song and score), Horner met “King’s Men” director Steven Zaillian’s expectations for a score that was “powerful-sounding, but dark and brooding.”
For “Apocalypto,” his third film with director Mel Gibson (including an Oscar nomination for the “Braveheart” score), Horner immediately knew “an orchestral score was the wrong way to go. We should rely on indigenous musical gestures, with primitive instruments and vocalists,” although he acknowledges more conventional scoring techniques (the use of strings and even electronics) also would prove necessary to keep the audience hooked dramatically.
Horner auditioned some 200 flutes and 80 drums from around the world to find the right sounds, then spent three weeks recording them in London’s Abbey Road Studios. “Whether they were Inuit or Mayan or Incan, it didn’t matter, as long as it was of a primitive enough quality that it sounded authentic,” he says.
Supplying vocals was Qawwali singer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whom Horner “steered in a slightly different direction” from the performer’s own Near Eastern sound. More guttural vocal noises often were made by Gibson himself, who “had a very specific sound in mind and knew what he wanted to hear.”
Like Zimmer and Newman, Horner often is booked a year or more in advance. “I look for projects that are diametrically opposed to each other, and things that I’ve never done before,” he says.
When he learned about “Bobby,” the jazz trumpeter and previous Oscar nominee (“A River Runs Through It”) called director Emilio Estevez and asked to score it. Isham has strong memories of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination.
“Bobby (Kennedy) presented this larger-than-life dream to our country, and a great many people were starting to embrace it,” he says. “As time has passed, we look back and say that we didn’t just lose a man here, we lost a dream for a better society, a better country and perhaps a better world. That magnitude of that, the loss of that and the hopefulness of that, had to be expressed musically.”
Although Isham played trumpet on his jazzy, noirish score for “The Black Dahlia” earlier in the year, he called on top trumpeter Tim Morrison for the elegiac solos in “Bobby.” And despite budget problems, he insisted the right music could not be manufactured with samples — it needed to be orchestral, and played by top-tier L.A. musicians.
The final musical cue, which encompasses the murder and its aftermath, runs more than 11 minutes and “expresses the tragedy of the loss. But we wanted to leave the audience with the hope that this dream can be reborn in each of us. I tried to turn the score around to present this idea, that there is hope.”