[Interview - David Hirschfelder]
David Hirschfelder gained international recognition for his work on the award-winning 1993 film, Strictly Ballroom. Since then, he has continually impressed audiences with his scores, including the Academy-Award nominated Shine in 1996. Earlier in 1998 he scored Sliding Doors, and most recently he scored powerful music for the critically acclaimed film, Elizabeth. I had an opportunity to talk with David when he was visiting Los Angeles from his native Australia last month.

In Elizabeth, which is a period film that doesn't feel like a period film, your music was not period music. What was your approach in writing the score to Elizabeth?

For Elizabeth I was specifically asked to write music from a contemporary standpoint as an emotional response from someone in our timeframe responding to the story - regardless of the period. However, I was influenced by the rhythms of the period. I utilized a 6/8 rhythm, which was the dance rhythm of the era.

I always compose music from the gut - it's a reaction to what I see on the screen. After a great deal of experimentation and consideration, I came up with the themes as a result of seeing the images and being inspired by this rhythm. The "Love Theme" for Elizabeth is in that 6/8 rhythm, suggesting dance, sex, and romance. If I venture into areas of the musical language that's beyond the period of the film both melodically and harmonically, it's fine because it's still a film that was resonating with a kind of quintessentially British-Celtic quality that seemed to go with the images even though it wasn't strictly period.

There were many dances in the film. Were these original compositions, or adaptations of music from the era?

They were my own compositions. In the end I saw the Coronation/Dance/Banquet scene as an opportunity to really celebrate the vitality of the period - and that was the area where I believe I was closest to an Elizabethan-sounding score of my own music. I allowed the influence of that period to infuse me both rhythmically and harmonically. It was funny - I did one year of music education at Melbourne University before I rebelled, dropped out, and became part of the Melbourne "Brat Pack" of musicians. In my one year of formal training we were studying Elizabethan music, and it was amazing to hear the things that were coming out from that period way back when. So because of the size of the room it was shot in and the flamboyance of the costumes, I took license for the dance scenes and scored the music with an orchestra that was much bigger than a court orchestra would have been in that time period. I figured, what the heck - it's a film! No disrespect intended to the historians, but I just did what felt right, and it seemed to work.

A lot of your films have been of the "independent film" breed. Is this an active choice on your part or are you limited by your location?

It's not an active choice - it probably stems from the fact I don't live in the States at the moment, so the kinds of films I've worked on to date have been films that have been more offshore projects. Elizabeth and Sliding Doors were written, directed, and mainly post-produced in London. I did the music for Sliding Doors in Melbourne, and came to the States for a couple of meetings with the director and producers. I would love to do a "mainstream" film, and I'm genuinely interested in doing some work over here and expanding my cultural horizons by getting an opportunity to work in a very exciting and powerful community. I enjoy my life in Australia, but I feel like a change of pace. If I could get some work out here, it would be wonderful.

What is your musical background?

I always wanted to be a film composer. I did a tertiary course at a very fine university in Melbourne, but at the time the curriculum was geared towards being a classical composer or a teacher, and there were not a lot of avenues in-between. Since I wanted to be a film composer and music producer, I was also interested in Jazz, Rock and Roll, and other popular music art forms. The kind of education I was looking for wasn't available at the university at the time (this was in 1978), so I felt that I would go out and work.

I deferred from the course and never completed it. I studied composition on my own by dissecting the works of Stravinsky, and at the same time dissecting the work of Miles Davis, The Beatles, and anything that excited me in the 20th Century - regardless of genre. That's how I taught myself - by literally tearing apart the music I liked to see how it worked. While I was doing that, I made a living by working in nightclubs and cabaret bands backing up singers in the late 70's/early '80s. I started getting work as a keyboard player on people's records, and commissions for radio programs and advertising jingles. In the mid-80's, I was a quite well known in Australia as a keyboard player, music producer, and composer.

I guess my first big break was touring with The Little River Band when I was 24, and that was a good professional break for me at the time. I toured America, and became good friends with John Farnham, the leader of the band. We went on to make his solo album, "Whispering Jack" with became the highest selling record ever in Australia, with 2-million copies sold in Australia alone! I essentially co-produced and arranged it with him, as well as composing one of the songs. It was during that period that I was just starting to get interested in being a film composer - I had my fix of Rock and Roll, and wanted to get back to orchestral writing with a classical approach.

So I produced a demo tape of some pieces I was working on in my spare time, and eventually got work scoring a documentary called "Susie's Story". It went on to win many awards, including a Penguin Award for Best Score. That was back in 1987, so I guess that was the year that my film career began. It was difficult to score "Susie's Story" because it wasn't a movie - it was real life. These characters were real people with real emotions. I found it to be an enormous challenge, and a great baptism into being a film composer. I went on to do three more documentaries and two Australian miniseries that took me musically into areas that I hadn't been to before.

At that point, Baz Luhrmann became familiar with my work. At that time he was a very alternative-style opera director. He was writing and directing theater pieces that were perceived to be very left field - a real bohemian! One of the works at that time was "Strictly Ballroom", which was originally a stage-play. When a local entrepreneur in Australia who went up to him after a performance picked it up and said, "We have to make a film about this," his first thought was, "Well, who do I get to do the music? I need someone who is in touch with pop music, but can score in classical styles and can blend the whole thing into a large-scale piece." I guess I was the first choice, and he called me out of the blue. He told me it was about the "kooky wacky world of ballroom dancing". I thought to myself, "Oh my god - I don't want to do this!" But I was curious - I liked the guy from when I spoke to him on the phone - he was an intense, passionate young man. Having read the script, I thought that it was killer, and I had to do the film, even though ballroom dancing wasn't my thing. I embraced the project, and I got a chance to experiment with really zany Carl Stalling-type orchestrations, and Xavier Kugat cool groovy lounge textures. Again, having just gone through a pop-phase in my career, it was great to have the opportunity to utilize these orchestration techniques.

There is a unique sound to the orchestra in Strictly Ballroom. Was it a live orchestra, or was it synthesized?

It was both. Budgetary constraints being what they were, I came up with a hybrid orchestra that was both surreal and kooky. Sometimes there's the slight twangy quality of the synthesized instruments mixed with the real violins and woodwinds. It created an interesting sound that I embraced and it seemed to suit that particular film, especially at the time, in 1992.

The British Academy Award that came from Strictly Ballroom gave me the confidence to come to Los Angeles to see what there was, and I think it was evident I would have to move out here. But I wasn't ready: I had a lot of films waiting for me in Australia, one of which was Shine. That film was in the works for a while, and I had been approached to do it back in 1993. I had another Australian film to score which starred Sandra Bernhardt called Dallas Doll. Working on that film was interesting, and I'm glad I had the opportunity. I really think I needed to cut my teeth on a few more films before I was ready to come and work in the Hollywood environment. I had young children at the time, and I didn't want to travel with them - they're a bit older now, so it's a perfect time. I did some more Australian movies (Shine, Dallas Doll, Tunnel Vision, Dating the Enemy), and then The Interview.

The Interview has been getting a lot of acclaim, and you received an AFI nomination for the score. What was your approach on the film?

It was a psychological thriller, which was something I had never done. It was film noir - the whole plot is a reveal so the audience has no idea what's going on. It was a dark and intriguing film. I had never done something like it before, which is what attracted me to it. It was a great script, and when I met the director he was very clear on what he wanted. It was a full orchestral score and there were no adaptations - it's all mine! I used some SoundScape work with surreal textures and ambient sounds mixed with strings. I didn't have a large budget, so I have some synthesized elements in the woodwinds. I guess time and money didn't allow me to go the whole way with that, which is sad, but it happens.

You received an Academy Award Nomination for Shine. There was a lot of classical music in the film, but a lot of underscore as well. Did you arrange the classical works to fit in the film?

Yes, I did the full gamut, like I did with Strictly Ballroom - there was the need to adapt pre-existing orchestral music and pop tunes, and blend it all into a score which was seamless with original underscore. Essentially, telling the story in the traditional role of being a composer for a film. It gave me a chance to do all the things I like doing - I love composing music, and I like putting my stamp on other pieces of music as well.

Is that something you would prefer to do instead of scoring?

No, I think that I'm leaning more towards composing. Evolving as you do as an artist, I need to go back and revisit my roots throughout various projects. There were things I didn't think I wanted to confront about my classical roots, and some the kooky kitsch aspects of music which I grew up with as a kid has all come back to haunt me in various films. Now I've gotten them out of my system, and at the same worked out what I'm really comfortable with. At the center of my writing and composing is a voice that is something that's been trying to get out all these years. I'm not a child prodigy who started writing at 10 years old, and wrote his first symphony when he was 16 - it's been slowly coming out - and I like that.

Most of the scores I've done have been composed pieces, but the ones that have received the most attention have less and less "other" music, and more of my own stuff. There is some source music in Elizabeth, and there were two classical pieces that ended up being the right piece of music to use. If you throw up a piece of Mozart and it happens to perfectly underscore the moment, what's the point of writing music for it? The director fell deeply in love with the classical piece and it fit the scene well, so we adapted it to the scene and utilized it as is - I enjoyed doing that. It was less work for me, and I didn't need to compose something just to prove I can score that scene. If someone already made a decision on a piece of music, and it works, I'm not the type of guy who comes in and says, "It's all got to be my music."

What are your thoughts on temp tracks? Have they limited you at all?

Well, yes, it happens all the time. I accept it as part of the game - it's another parameter that's there. I find that sometimes it's very helpful because it gives a clear indication of what they like, but sometimes it can limit both the vision of the director and my vision as well. Sometimes it's hard to get outside the temp score. For Elizabeth and Shine, they didn't have temp scores - the only stuff they had were some of the classical stuff that remained. What I want to request on the next film I work on is that the music editor has the temp score as his guide to communicate to me what the director wants, and they transcribe the temp score into written notes. "I want this quality, that quality, etc." Then they remove the temp score when they send the film to me so that I'm not limited to the temp. That's something I'd like to propose if they're agreeable.

Do you have a next project lined up?

We're waiting confirmation on several projects, but nothing to announce at this time.

I heard that Baz Luhrmann is working on a musical - is that something you might be interested in doing?

I don't know - last time I talked with Baz he said, "Are you doing anything in the year 2000? I have a project for you." So that may be it - we'll see!

What would your dream project be?

Right now my ultimate project would be a fully through-composed operatic work combining world music rhythms with classical operatic form - beautiful form. Something like a through-sung, through-composed work that is digitally animated, but with real-life actors as well. An epic fantasy that would allow me to go completely bezerk with music would be perfect.

You should talk to Peter Jackson about Lord of the Rings!

Yeah - that would be a big score! You're actually the second person to mention that to me today!

The score to Elizabeth is available from London Records. The score to The Interview is not available on CD in the states, but is available as an Australian import. Shine and Strictly Ballroom are also available on CD.