First of all, Charles, we would like to thank you for this interview. The whole staff of Nightmare Spain are scores collectors, we love the music associated to cinema as a part of it, and we admire your work in particular, so having this interview is a true honor.
Before starting with ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, we would like to know a bit about your beginning as a composer. How old were you when you first felt interest for music? Were you an autodidact, or you received academic teaching?
I have always loved music. My mom was a pianist and my father was involved in writing and producing music in his early career. My mother actually accompanied silent movies when she was young. She died this year at the age of 101. So, I was exposed to music very early in life. I didn’t decide to follow music as a profession until my college years. Although I was trained academically, I consider myself to be self-taught in the area of film music. My career as a film composer derives from my interest in, and my love of film and music.
Charles Bernstein, with his Emmy Award, won in 1987
According to our sources, your first work related to film industry came in 1968 with ‘Czechoslovaquia 1968’, a documentary. How came this first job?
I had composed music for dozens of documentary and informational films before I was offered this film, which won an Academy Award. I met the director, Denis Sanders, through friends at UCLA. It was a brilliant film, and I convinced Denis that I knew what sort of music would tell the story of the Russian invasion of its smaller neighbor. The film was unusual because it had no spoken words, only music and occasional sound effects to tell the story.
Charles, conducting a score in The Burbank Studios
In the eighties, you did the scores for ‘The Entity’ and ‘Cujo’, two of your most famed works associated to horror films. Do you specially like to compose music for that genre, or you don’t feel any particular predilection for a specific one?
I loved doing 'Cujo' and 'The Entity'; both are excellent films from talented directors. I am happy to work on horror films, but mostly I prefer to work on any film that is of high quality, regardless of genre. Most important to me is the caliber of the filmmakers, the level of intelligence inherent in the film and the significance of the story. Needless to say, this isn’t always the case.
The scores for 'The Entity' and 'Cujo'
Let’s get into your score for ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. How came that job? Were you a personal choice by Wes Craven?
My agent called me and suggested that I meet Wes because he felt that Wes and I would understand each other. He was right. After that meeting, Wes decided to hire me.
Did you have any particular influence when working in this score?
No, I approached Elm Street with an open mind, as I try to do with all the projects that I am fortunate to be asked to compose for.
We would like to know about your relationship with Wes Craven while composing the score. Did he give you any kind of directives, or did you feel totally free? Did you compose the score while the film was being shot, or when it was completed?
Wes was easy to work with, he gave me a lot of freedom, but we could discuss ideas and approaches. In many ways he was an ideal director to communicate with because he listened well and was open to all ideas.
Charles with Wes Craven
We’ve read in a Wes Craven’s interview that, when thinking about Freddy, he studied some primitive aspects of human being, and he found that animal claws have always frighten men. There was any correlation with that, when you decided to do a score without orchestration, or there were any other factors?
The biggest factor in deciding to do an electronic score was the small budget. But, I also found this musical vocabulary to be well suited to my ideas for the score.
Charles, in his studio
Let’s analyze the score in a more detailed way. We don’t have a specific musical knowledge, so that we are going to ask you more about the relationship between music and images. How was the development of the Main Theme, that 10-note line that has become such an iconic aspect of Freddy Krueger such as the glove, the fedora and the sweater? Did Wes ask you for such a recognizable theme?
I was well into writing the score when I had the idea for that 10-note theme. I could have written the score without a specific thematic idea –just scary textures and pulses (as is the case with many horror films). But I thought that this theme would be a good unifying factor, giving the film a melodic identity. I came to Wes with this idea. I wasn’t sure he would support it, but he was very excited about the development of this theme. I was actually relieved with his response.
We think that the score is very diverse, with very different kind of themes, but all perfectly integrated with the film. We specially love Laying the traps, a much more aggressive theme, with that particular eighties-sound; we also have the frenzy and the “need-to-escape” feeling of Dream Attack, or the anxiety of Rod hanged/Night Stalking. What made you decide to have certain heterogeneity in the score?
I believe that the art of film scoring has a lot to do with a sense of “musical identity” for each film. This often involves balancing stylistic diversity with unity. There must be variety to maintain interest, and enough unity to maintain the special identity. I had hoped to bring Elm Street and Freddy a special sound that fused the separate parts of the film together, but at the same time set the entire movie apart from sounding like other films.
Nancy, laying the traps
Sleep Clinic is, in our opinion, one of the best themes, with that piano line that fuses with the 10-note line. We think that is particularly inspired. Did you have the sensation that it was an important moment of the film, when Nancy’s mother discovers that maybe his daughter hasn’t made up all, while she brings that ‘souvenir’ from dream world?
Yes, this section presented an opportunity for a fuller, more atmospheric statement of the theme melody with arpeggiated accompaniment. It also seemed like a point in the story where this sort of treatment was called for.
Sleep clinic, a fundamental point in the film
Another theme that shocked me when I first saw the movie as a child was Lurking. That theme makes me feel sick, definitely… Do you have something to tell us about that one?
As you say, this piece was intended to evoke a sense of dread and discomfort. One of the elements that might have helped accomplish this was the contrast of the more irregular percussive, repeated elements played against the more sustained and dissonant textures.
Curiously, no composer has worked twice in the series. Were you contacted at any time to compose the score for any sequel? Maybe the second one? It seems logic that you had continued with the scores of the series, after doing such a brilliant work in the first one. Would you have agreed?
One of the later directors, I think it was Renny Harlin on number 4, spoke to me briefly, but that was it. I never understood why New Line didn’t take better advantage of developing a continuity with the musical side of the franchise. They even had a chance to develop the original music on the most recent remake, but they haven’t seemed interested in doing this.
You composed a wonderful theme for the “Never Sleep Again” documentary. How did you feel working again for the saga?
I loved doing a new theme for the documentary and working with the filmmakers. I thought they did a great job on that project. This theme is more animated and ironic than the original music. (It is available as a single on iTunes and other services).
Charles, in the 'Never Sleep Again' documentary
Which other composers do you like most, both “classics” and news? We’ve seen pictures of you with John Williams and Ennio Morricone. Some of our favorites are Williams itself, Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, Brad Fiedel or John Carpenter…
I like all the composers you mentioned, but Ennio, John and Jerry would be at the top of the list, along with Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann and so many other great composers that have scored films over the years.
Charles with John Williams...
... and Ennio Morricone
I own both the first edition of the score edited by Varèse Sarabande (the one which included also Christopher Young’ score for the second movie) in 1989, and the re-edition, also by Varese, in 2005. Those are both good editions, but we miss a specific theme: the action one where Nancy brings Freddy out of the dream world, at the end of the film. Why wasn’t included? We love that theme.
I don’t really know the answer to this. Varèse produced the first album, and they controlled those decisions. I tried to generate some interest in a new and more complete CD when the surround sound DVD was released, but that never materialized.
The two editions of the score by Varèse Sarabande
The final duel
Have you seen any of the other movies of the series? Do you like any of them especially?
I never made an effort to see the other films in the series, but I have seen some and various parts randomly on cable from time to time. I try not to get influenced by other scores when I’m working.
Let me conclude by saying that I enjoyed your interview. I’d like to thank you for your interest in my work, and for this very thoughtful series of questions.
Charles Bernstein Website