When I was a boy, my parents didn’t have a television but they did have a piano, and as far back as I can remember I would torture that poor piano, making horrific noises. It was more fun than anything else and it certainly kept me out of trouble. Then, when I was roughly 12 years old, I sneaked into my local cinema to see Once Upon a Time in the West. I remember thinking, “This is what I want to do,” but of course, as a kid living in the country in Germany, getting to Hollywood was much more difficult than simply buying a plane ticket.
Later I was in a band and we had a hit, but I just loathed it. If you have ever seen Spinal Tap, the whole band experience is just like that. So I realised that wasn’t the life for me and I became an assistant to a film composer called Stanley Myers. He knew everything about the orchestra but nothing about electronics. I, on the other hand, knew a lot about electronics and nothing about the orchestra. So – in exchange for me figuring out how to work his espresso machine – he taught me about the orchestra. From the start he was very collaborative. I was never a ghost writer and after a while I was assigned movies of my own.
I happened to write the score for a small British movie called A World Apart, which was brought to the attention of Barry Levinson, who had just made Good Morning Vietnam. He didn’t have my phone number but somehow had the address for my studio in London. One evening, at around 11 o’clock, my doorbell rang and there was this guy standing there. He said, “Hi, I’m Barry Levinson, I’m a Hollywood director. Would you like to do a Hollywood movie?” And that was it!
When I am scoring a film I ask myself, what is the tone of the story and what is the point of view? I tend to procrastinate for ever but eventually I have to sit down and write a theme. This never comes easily and there is always a lot of despair involved, a lot of, “I don’t think I can do this again. I need to tell them to hire somebody decent”. A bus driver will get better at his route with experience but I am supposed to start with a clean slate each time, and because I have written so many soundtracks avoiding repetition is difficult. Sequels are very interesting in this respect. When composing for The Dark Knight, I tried to pretend Batman Begins didn’t exist, literally starting from scratch. Then, whenever there were gaps, there was always material from the first film to fall back on.
I rarely see the film before I start writing and often I don’t read the script because I much prefer to have a conversation with the director. Then I know what movie he is making in his head, and of course, each director has very specific requirements. I am about to start working with Chris Nolan again and am also working with James Brooks, who directed As Good as it Gets. They are very different personalities so the music performs contrasting roles in their films. Working with Guy Ritchie on Sherlock Holmes was different again. Guy is a very physical director and would actually conduct me at the piano.
Music in Hollywood has changed a great deal. There used to be an army of orchestrators, arrangers and copiers employed by the studio – André Previn was part of one of those vast music departments. These days those divisions have fallen by the wayside. I write on a computer, which allows me to be very specific about the nuance of every note, much more so than writing on paper. But you do miss that terrific focused emotion of a group of musicians playing together. So I like to collaborate with other composers and musicians because it allows me to capture that sense of teamwork.
There are many classical composers that I love. Bach is forever my teacher and I listen to him constantly. I also love Mozart, Brahms and all the Schubert Lieder. In my studio I have enormous speakers – double the size of whatever you think of as “large” – and one night we put on this incredible Bernstein performance of Mahler’s Second and just cranked it up. It was a great evening and we all went home very humbled.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Gramophone