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What would the shower scene of “Psycho” be like without his piercing, staccato strings? Would the theme from “Vertigo” be as dizzying without those swirling woodwinds?
Forty years after his death, composer Bernard Herrmann’s still hasn’t stopped playing. His themes constantly appear in pop culture; whether it’s looped into mainstream music, used in a commercial or reworked into another composer’s score. Examples of these include Quentin Tarantino’s use of the whistling “Twisted Nerve” theme in “Kill Bill,” or the Lady Gaga using a portion of “Vertigo” in her “Born this Way” music video.
But Herrmann’s influence doesn’t stop at pop culture. You can hear traces of his impact in the scores of 20th and 21st century composers such as John Williams, Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino
To highlight his work and continuing relevance, New York-based director Brandon Brown is directing a new full-length documentary, “Lives of Bernard Herrmann,” on the composer who worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Ray Harryhausen and Martin Scorsese. In February, Brown interviewed actor and former co-host of TCM’s “The Essentials” Alec Baldwin, who called Herrmann an equal to all of those artists.
Comet Over Hollywood spoke with Brown about what inspired the project and when his love for the composer began:
COH: What made you decide to make the documentary? What is your goal?
BB: The documentary is my dream project; I want to make a film that I would like to watch on Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was not only an amazing composer but he was also an interesting person. I think his music and story deserve to be more closely examined in a longer film with new interviews. My goal is to introduce people to Herrmann’s music and also sympathize with him not only as a composer, but as a character in the documentary.
COH: What inspired the title?
BB: In an interview from 1970*, Herrmann said, “There’s no one performance of a piece [of music] that can ever reveal the whole piece… It’s not finished. It goes on and on and on. Each performance reveals something new about it again.”
When I decided on a title for this film, I had that quote in mind and applied it to Herrmann’s life. To me, a documentary on Bernard Herrmann’s life would in fact need to be a documentary on many lives. It’d be a documentary examining Herrmann’s life before music, his life of composing music, his life as a husband and father, and, finally, how his music has lived on long after his passing.
This interview is available through the Film Music Society.
COH: When did your love for Bernard Herrmann begin? What started it?
BB: It started when I was 12 or 13 after I heard the score from “Vertigo.” Up until that point, I had a general love of soundtracks that started with my love of movies and it evolved from there. John Williams was my favorite composer before Bernard Herrmann. As I got more interested in Herrmann, I learned that Williams was influenced by Herrmann and that he knew him personally. It was interesting to connect my two favorite composers.
COH: Do you remember the first time you were introduced to Bernard Herrmann? What was the score and when was it?
BB: The first score I ever heard was “The Trouble with Harry,” which was also my first Alfred Hitchcock film. I was six or seven years old. The score that later made me aware of Herrmann was “Vertigo.” I saw how Hitchcock’s direction, the visuals of Robert Burks, the acting of Stewart and Novak and Herrmann’s music all paralleled each other.
BB: What is your favorite Herrmann score? What makes it memorable?
COH: “Obsession” (1976). It’s a genuinely haunting score through his use of organ and strings and how his themes reflect the characters. “Obsession” is really the same story as “Vertigo,” which has more of a romantic score. The score for “Obsession is much more haunting and eerie than “Vertigo,” and Herrmann’s finale makes the film.
COH: Though you are still in the early stages, when do you hope for the documentary to be complete?
BB: Summer 2016.
COH: What do your viewers have to look forward to? (Interviews, new information)
BB: The documentary will include interviews with Herrmann’s family, people he worked with and people who know his music well. Most of these are interviews that haven’t been conducted before on film. We’ll be revealing more information as the interviews are filmed.
COH: Why is it important that we remember Bernard Herrmann and his work today?
BB: First and foremost, Herrmann wrote some of the greatest music of the 20th century, ranking with any celebrated classical composers. Writing music wasn’t just a job for Herrmann, it was his life. He saw it as an art form and was dedicated to preserving that art form. He demonstrated this by conducting the music of Ives, Ruggles and other great but generally unknown composers.
COH: How has Herrmann influenced pop culture, contemporary composers and scores?
BB: You hear his music everywhere, whether it is being reused or parodied, people are constantly finding new uses for his music. Try to think of any slasher movie that doesn’t pull inspiration from the shower scene in “Psycho,” or an outer space film that doesn’t use musical techniques from “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Herrmann’s music was a foundation for horror, thriller and sci-fi film music. You always hear it. Every time you hear the theme from “Jaws,” you will hear traces of Herrmann.
COH: What interested you in film making and documentaries?
BB: There are plenty of stories to tell about people who made a significant impact in the world. I want to help tell these stories of people who are no longer around or left their mark on history.