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"David Puttnam asked me to write this and gave me $5000 to do so, and I was frightened by it. I delayed and delayed for about a year, and Puttnam got pissed off and went away, and then I wrote it"  -Bob Ellis, on the birth of his script, The Nostradamus Kid
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Young musical wunderkind, Elliot Goldenthal, throws Western choral music, Tibetan gongs, circus music, swing and heavy rock at the first bloody screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus (directed by his wife); he was being as eclectic as the production design, he tells SUE VERMILIONS.

Elliot Goldenthal is "ambling in from this fabulous flamenco concert'' when I call him in Spain, where he has been discussing an upcoming music project with author Robert Coover. For a composer as eclectic and impassioned as Goldenthal, an interest in this tempestuous Iberian music ("an amazing art form") is no surprise. His magnificently stirring scores - the latest is for Titus, directed by his wife, Julie Taymor - reveal that rare animal: the movie composer whose scores are just as striking outside of their film contexts as within them.

"building a reputation"

Based in New York like his contemporaries Howard Shore (Silence of the Lambs; Crash) and Carter Burwell (Fargo), Goldenthal has been fast building a reputation as one of the finest - some would say the finest - of the younger breed of US film music writers.

He wrote his first film music for Stephen King's horror story Pet Sematary (yes, with an S) but he prefers to think of Gus van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy as his first movie score. He now has credits for directors as diverse as Michael Mann (Heat), Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy, In Dreams), David Fincher (Alien 3), Barry Levinson (Sphere), Joel Schumacher (Batman Returns, Batman and Robin, A Time to Kill) and now Taymor on Titus, the first film to be adapted from Shakepeare's gory piece of juvenilia, Titus Andronicus.

His strikingly wide-ranging score for augmented orchestra encompasses Western choral music, Tibetan gongs, circus music, swing and heavy rock, and is likely to be this problematic film's enduring legacy. That's not to overlook his theatre music, nor his reputation as a serious concert music composer. Having studied under Aaron Copland, Goldenthal has written a series of highly regarded works including the moving Fire Water Paper, an oratorio commemorating the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war.

"blend orchestral resources with unlikely traditions"

One of Goldenthal's strengths is his ability to blend orchestral resources with unlikely traditions - Irish folk lyricism in Michael Collins, avant-garde rock for Heat - whilst rigorously avoiding cliches and sentimentality (the latter always a danger with Irish influences - viz. James Horner's sticky Titanic score).

I run past him some of the possible influences I hear in his Titus score (Sony Classical, CD catalogue number 89171): Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (which he queries without quite denying) and the massed electric guitars of fellow New York composer Glenn Branca (a nod of recognition).

First of all, Titus's art direction, which leaps between Ancient Rome, 1930s Italian Fascism and a contemporary pool hall, "suggested the paths that I take,'' he says, citing a lithograph depicting a performance of Titus Andronicus in Shakespeare's times as evidence that the film's dislocations are not as radical as they might appear. "Some (actors) were in Elizabethan costumes and others in Roman togas even then - there was a real mixture of styles. I was doing the musical equivalent.''

If you go to Rome today and stand in the ruins, he continues, referring to one of the film's locations, the Colosseum amphitheatre, "you're going to see some guy in front of it, some Elvis impersonator, you see a car with a guy listening to Puccini, guys in stupid roman togas.'' All kinds of cultural eras come together.

Expanding on this postmodern approach, Goldenthal says that if he had been born in an African village in the 1880s, he would only hear music from his own tribe and maybe from one or two other neighbouring tribes. Now, however, things are different. Even Mozart travelled widely and incorporated different influences - some of his music was considered by some of his contemporaries to be a hangover from the baroque period, for example. "He would jump from style to style to style.'' Today "it all sounds like Mozart, but to the ears of his contemporaries it could sound pretty strange.''

"an Oscar nomination"

His score for Interview With the Vampire brought Goldenthal an Oscar nomination but it was the intense and innovative soundtrack for Michael Mann's thriller, Heat - orchestral writing by Goldenthal plus a collection of tracks from Brian Eno, Lisa Gerrard, Einsturzende Neubauten and others - that forced people to sit up and take notice. Ironically, the experience of working with Mann left a bad taste in his mouth.

Although Mann encouraged him to experiment - here Goldenthal first deployed the massive electric guitar distortion he'd heard in Branca's work - their working relationship was less than straightforward. Mann, he says, would "get very excited about something I was doing and would try to mix it himself ... he'd just maul it. It was really not a very good professional situation." Especialy galling was that Mann would ask Godenthal to write a piece of music for, say, the climax, then hire another writer to score the scene behind his back. (Moby's music plays over the final credits). He made a DAT recording of his complete score for the film - mixed by himself - but not only has no plans to release it, he does not even know where it is.

Every other film he has worked on has been "a really wonderful experience, both personally and professionally,'' he says. "But don't get me wrong - I don't disrespect Michael Mann as a human being or as an artist.''

Working with Taymor - previously best known for her stage work including an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast - has its advantages. "When we do work together and have a hard day and things aren't going well.... she knows I've been fucking up or something and she's sympathetic,'' he says. She knows he'll be coming out of his dry spell. But as a prolific composer, he does not have many of those, surely? "I do have a technique I can fall back on ,'' he says. "I really don't need inspiration for most of the time.'' He works at night - from 9pm to 5am - when there are "less distractions, you're just there in front of your keyboard or pencil or eraser.''

"When he does need inspiration, he looks at paintings or watches sport"

When he does need inspiration, he looks at paintings or watches sport rather than listening to other music. "You can identify with great athletes, you watch them fail and you watch them succeed, and I suppose that is inspirational. Also there is so much great music out there that it tends to nullify itself from inspiring you.''

Come again? "It's already achieved its greatness,'' he explains. "If you're looking for a kernel in the production of greatness, you have to find it from within yourself - I don't think you can find it from other things. "I hate to do it sometimes, its easier to put your feet up, but you also have to face your demons sometimes in order to come up with something really significant artistically.''

Trying to excel is "never about `am I good?', it's more about can you go down there and drag it up, can you go into the (mine) with a pickaxe and do what you have to do - get that nugget of gold. It's not a question of good-bad, talented-untalented; it's more a question of the devotion ittakes to get where you need.''

I mention that there is often a darkness and doominess to his work - by no means a criticism - and detect a slight defensiveness, as if he's heard this one a few too many times for his liking. "Butcher Boy wasn't so dark,'' he immediately offers. "If other people look at my things and see dark, that's (their) choice. I don't understand dark. I know what light is, I don’t know what dark is. I know what comedic music is - (music that is) light-headed and belly-laughing and, let’s say, coke-headed and capricious. You can suggest the feelings of a love of a woman, of an idea, a spiritual love, you can express all these things in music and people will say that's dark, when it's searching. I will say it's much easier to create a dark mood than a light mood. It's really easy to be dumb and stupid in romantic comedies etc., but to create light music that is not dumb is hard."

"his experiences on the two most recent Batman films"

So what about his experiences on the two most recent Batman films – the second of which is widely regarded as a turkey? "It was satisfying working on Batman Forever and not on Batman and Robin," he says. "The former not only had a better script and cast but was incredibly enjoyable to work on."

Having grown up reading comic books, he loved the spirit of play involved in the creation of a piece of disposable culture. ''It's not as if you're trying to create a monument to forever, so you just have fun. It's not like Shakespeare, where one character is all these things at the same time.''

Writing music for the Bard (he has also written the music for a ballet version of Othello) can "drive you nuts'', especially the tragedies, he says, "because you don't know who's the innocent one." In Titus, he sometimes had to be deliberately amibiguous in terms of the moods he was
helping to shape.

Writing for film, theatre, ballet or the concert hall is different according to the medium in terms of the approach to time, he says. "When you write for the theatre, it's going to be different each time the music and the play are performed, whereas in film, the exact moment at which an
event happens is fixed."

The effect of a score on the film it is accompanying can be radical. When he was hired by Jordan for Interview With the Vampire, it was to replace a score by the film's original that was felt to make the movie seem too slow. His aim was to make the film seem faster.

Of course, he says, it's ultimately more satisfying to write a piece of music like the Oratorio, which has to be conjured out of thin air, yet there's also tremendous satisfaction, in writing for film or theatre, "in being part of a community."


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Elliot Goldenthal
(pic. Warren Goldberg)


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