Charles Bernstein is very active as a composer of film and TV scores and has been for over four decades. He has composed scores for over 100 motion pictures, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and was a musical contributor to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. He has one Emmy win and two Emmy nominations. An active educator and member of the Hollywood community, he is currently elected to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Board of Directors of The Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the Board of Directors of the ASCAP Foundation. He is the author of two books about film music and a regular columnist in The Society of Composers & Lyricists quarterly publication, The Score.
I make a concerted effort to focus on the music and not on MIDI programming. In the MIDI world there are a lot of shortcuts for programming and editing, so I don’t get lost down the MIDI programming rabbit hole often. It's usually easy to get good results quickly. In certain instruments the character of the sound changes substantially with little micro changes in the MIDI, and that will bring me down a rabbit hole right away. Sometimes there's no way around it because you have to get it right.
I’ve been able to watch the entire evolution of the industry because when I started out the composer's tool set was pretty much just pencil, paper, metronome, and stopwatch. I think there were roughly 250 working film composers at that point, it was pretty small. The advent of computers democratized everything and spread everything so wide that the supply and demand ratio is extremely different. Now there are probably tens of thousands of film composers across the world as opposed to several hundred, and because of supply and demand economics you can get people to score cheaply. The democratization is both positive and negative. One of the negative effects is that it brought the price down. But one of the main reasons why we have so many film composers is that it’s just easy and fun. Who wouldn’t want to score films under these conditions?
There is an unbelievably large variety of scenarios in which films are scored. John Williams, the most wonderful composer among us, he stands on a box with a stick and has the entire orchestra in the room at the same time. That’s ideal. That’s wonderful. That’s gold. On the other side you have situations where there’s no orchestra, no live players, and you do the score all by yourself. Then you have something in the middle, which is where most scores are written these days. No matter what obstacles or opportunities you're faced with, know that you're not alone and it's totally normal. There is no normal.
Purely on the compositional level our voice is about our personal taste, but unfortunately it’s not always up to us. We have to be really good composers, but we’re not just pleasing ourselves. I sometimes think about the difference between our voice and the voice of the movie. Sometimes we can let our voice come through, but other times we really want to submerge our voice in the message of the movie. When we're writing music we can be a personality, or a chameleon, or somewhere in between. Sometimes a movie allows us to be the self that we’re longing to be and gives us a chance to use the voice that we most enjoy using. Other times we’re completely at the mercy of a style that we just have to do.
Since I’m almost always working with a few instruments at a time I can usually do my own score prep. On those occasions where I have to go into Capitol or go into a studio and conduct, even if I have only a small orchestra, the music prep is a problem. I can’t do prep on that level. I can do it on the level which I mostly work, but whenever I have larger sessions I farm out the music copyist work.
I never worry when I start out about being efficient or getting the music exactly right. The point where everybody’s pleased and everything works out is an end point, not a beginning for me. In the beginning, just write music. Just do your best. Just get the wheels turning and start moving.
I would say there’s a pattern to almost every film I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a lot of them. First of all, none of them has ever been a piece of cake. They all have what I would call a healing crisis. There is always a low point somewhere. The very beginning is good, and then somewhere early on I confront a total crisis in which I think I’m not capable of doing the job. There’s a total crisis where I feel completely lost and helpless, and then I climb out of that and it always has turned out well.
The quality of gear we can get at affordable prices today is fantastic. You can go a long way on a nickel these days and compete with people that have very high-end stuff, and a lot of hardware can be replaced with plugins. But, there are certain areas where it pays to have good equipment. Certainly you need a really powerful computer, and great mics and preamps. You can't get around that. That front end equipment is probably the best place for composers to invest.
I’m used to doing it all myself. Writing, recording, conceptualizing, demoing, it feels like it’s all part of the same thing and I find it really hard to delegate, but I admit that it's the wrong way to do it. The proper way to work is to have a team. All good composers have a team, from John Williams on down. A good team is critical. As I hear myself talking, I’m talking myself out of the way I’ve been doing business.
I am a big believer in front loading work in the schedule. I work very hard early on instead of meandering in and then working hard at the end. That way I hopefully have decreasing workload pressures. I recommend that. I also recommend good nutrition and working at good emotional and mental health.
The way I delegate is very simple. I have never had anybody in my studio, never throughout my entire career (except for musicians, of course). I don’t like people around. To me it’s all about the first thing, which is the creative thing. So much of the composition happens in different phases of the work that I’m not comfortable delegating. Everybody I know has a better a life in that regard than I do. I like the idea of having helpers, but I can’t seem to let go well enough.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s a misnomer. Nothing is blocked when you have what people call writer’s block. Block implies an impediment that stops your forward progress. I always call it a lack of being pregnant. It’s as if you're not pregnant and you’re thinking `I’ve got to give birth…' The problem happened before that moment! You have to be impregnated. You have to be inspired. There’s something that precedes the moment of creativity that if you don’t do that, then the moment of creativity won’t follow. It’s a natural process. Curing writer's block is about fertility. It's about feeding your creativity so that when birth is required you have gestation preceding it.
I don’t recommend all-nighters. I don’t recommend stressing or pushing yourself to the point of physical or emotional harm. I see a lot of that and I’ve done a lot of that to myself. It’s always counter-productive. I think good work habits mean you get a full night of sleep, and you eat well, and that you don’t spend every waking hour working. You can't. Even if it’s just small breaks, those are important.