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'I had to imagine I was the Butcher Boy': What it's like writing the music for Hollywood movies

We spoke to Elliot Goldenthal ahead of his event on Friday with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.

Elliot Goldenthal with his Oscar for the score for the film Frida in 2003.
Elliot Goldenthal with his Oscar for the score for the film Frida in 2003.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

SOMETIMES WE TAKE their work for granted – even though it’s one of the most important parts of the cinema experience: the music.

When a score is bad you try to ignore it. When it’s good it can make the film – and the composer – legendary. Think John Williams’ work on Star Wars or Ennio Morricone’s compositions for Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Williams’ and Morricone’s work is so iconic that to mention their names evokes a time and a place (even if that place is in a galaxy far, far away).

One of the best-known names in the film composing world today is Elliot Goldenthal, who will visit Dublin for a special event this Friday. The 64-year-old New Yorker has a special connection with Ireland – he is the man behind the score for Neil Jordan’s films Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy, and Interview with the Vampire, not to mention big-budget blockbusters like Alien 3, Batman Forever, and Heat.

His work is stirring, emotional, and at times bombastic. Take this, the funeral coda from Michael Collins, for example, which manages to move away from any stereotypical Oirishness while retaining an Irish sensibility (most noticeably with the violins):

Source: Liradrin/YouTube

This is the kind of music that can give you goosebumps while guiding you emotionally through a film.

So it’s no surprise, then, to hear that Goldenthal is an Oscar-winner – he got his golden statuette for the score to Frida (directed by his long-term partner Julie Taymor) in 1993.

He’s had a long and lauded career, but it’s not just film scores he works on – he also has composed for ballet and broadway productions. Such is his talent that on Friday he’ll be talking through his career with Dave Fanning at a special event involving the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra playing a selection of his best-known works.

Getting into the characters’s mind

As he prepared to visit Ireland, we spoke to Goldenthal on the phone to find out more about how he works. What exactly is it like to compose film scores? Goldenthal tells us it’s all about getting into the mind of the character.

“When I was doing the Butcher Boy with Neil Jordan, the Patrick McCabe novel is very specific from a 12-year-old boy’s point of view, and I almost had to imagine myself as if I was Francie Brady,” he recalls. “What kind of music would he score to his own life? Music [that would be] very, very childlike but not childish, if you understand the distinction there.”

Here’s Tune for Da from Butcher Boy:

Source: XXensational/YouTube

Every time he starts a new project Goldenthal starts afresh. “Each time it’s a new ballgame.  It’s completely different – you never walk through the same river twice when you’re doing a film project and if you try to, you realise there’s a lot of hazards.”

Compare the Butcher Boy and Michael Collins pieces above to this from Interview With The Vampire and hear how you can identify it’s a Goldenthal piece, but sense how different it is in tone:

Source: XXensational/YouTube

So at what point does a composer come on board to work on a film? It all depends on the director.

“Sometimes the director likes to involve you a year before anything is filmed and you get lucky enough to be in the process of the script and even before the casting,” says Goldenthal.

“But sometimes situations arise where you have to come in at the last minute and all you see is the final director’s and editor’s cut, and each one has its own challenge. It’s easier to come in later because this way… all the voices are narrowed down and you can get a more casual feeling of what the director wants to accomplish.” So, ironically, being on board from day one could perhaps make things a bit more complicated than you’d imagine.

Though he works across a variety of time periods and genres musically, Goldenthal says he doesn’t try to make a distinction between his different work projects. “I would say it suits my personality in the sense that I guess I get refreshed when I go from one medium to the other. This way I have a more objective feeling.”

The week that we speak, he’s writing a trumpet concerto to be premiered in Poland.

Composing from three years of age

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If you thought that composing film scores sounded like the kind of job that you might need to put in a lot of work into before you give it a stab, then you’d be right.

Goldenthal started when he was three or four years old – no pressure, wannabe composers. When he first started composing, it was ”an immediate connection”, something that he just kept gravitating towards. To some of us, composing songs while so young seems hard to imagine, but for Goldenthal it was entirely natural. At 14, he had his first ballet (called Variations on Early Glimpses) performed.

This youth even helped him find his own style. He laughs when recounting how at first he tried to sound like other musicians, but “it sounded original because I couldn’t do that [copy the musicians correctly]“.

The son of a seamstress and a house painter, his family were very supportive: “But they always knew if all else fails I can always be a house painter or something. I can always do what they did, but they were very, very supportive.”

In his teenage years in New York, Goldenthal says he was lucky enough that there was a lot of interest in art movie theatres. This formed part of his cinema education and meant that he didn’t just see cinema as a purely commercial entity.

Goldenthal has worked on commercial projects – think Batman or Heat – and also on more arty projects like some of Neil Jordan’s work. But he’s not concerned with being commercial. “It wasn’t a big leap for me or a leap for the director – it was a bigger leap for Hollywood to accept my sort of slightly left-of-centre composing,” he says of working with the likes of Michael Mann.

He’s been called the “thinking man’s composer”, but when that’s put to Goldenthal he laughs, saying that he presumes everyone is thinking when listening to music like his.

It’s not just music that Goldenthal is fascinated by – he has a keen interest in world politics. At the beginning of our conversation, he asks how the referendum campaign is going in Ireland. And when TheJournal.ie asks him about Donald Trump, he doesn’t hold back.

To him Trump is “loathsome” but it’s not just Trump alone who bothers him: “Some of his cronies in eliminating the emphasis on the arts, and making education and learning kind of an enemy, that hurts more… [Its impact] on the environment and on people’s brains and the idea [of] the philosophy of winning, that horrible narcissistic emphasis. It’s really, really horrible and it can get worse it can be worse and it was worse, but it’s pretty bad.”

To make it worse, I am a New Yorker so I grew up with that idiot [Trump] my whole life. It’s like seeing a conman knock on people’s doors and you know they’re lying, they’re a conman and you can’t stop them. I saw this stuff for the last 40 years.

But back to his Irish visit, which will see Goldenthal hear the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra play many of his works. He says he’s excited to get here and join them in rehearsals.

The programme for this Friday is not easy programme, says the composer, but he’s confident in the Irish musicians:

“Every work is very technically difficult for an orchestra. It’s very difficult, and I’m rooting for them.”

Elliot Goldenthal will be interviewed by Dave Fanning at the National Concert Hall on Friday night for an event including the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra playing a selection of his works. To buy tickets for An Evening With Elliot Goldenthal or to find out more visit the NCH website.

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