Steve Bartek

Article by Lukas Kendall
Film Score Monthly #64, December 1995

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Lukas Kendall
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Steve Bartek is one of those behind-the-scenes guys who makes things happen-though not in the way people think. He does not write Danny Elfman's music, but he does provide a key role in its physical realization - as he explains in detail. He has been Elfman's orchestrator from day one, having been a member of Oingo Boingo. Like Elfman, he is a fan of Bernard Herrmann's scores for the Ray Harryhausen films, of Fellini and Rota and Casanova, and Kurt Weill, reasons why the two get along so well; "In a weird way we've had the same experiences growing up - he studied Balinese dance and I took Javanese gamelan, we've had many things in common," he says. He is a nice guy and a class act, and I am thankful he took the time to speak to me. Occasionally I took a somewhat adversarial approach, to leave no stone unturned, and he seemed sensitive to all the rumors of who-writes-what, which are disrespectful to him as well as to Elfman.

Lukas Kendall: How do you work with Danny?

Steve Bartek: When Danny works with a director, he sits down and he mocks up all his themes on his computer. His synthesizers and samplers play back the major themes for the director, and they spend weeks sorting through that stuff. When it comes down to starting my involvement, he takes those sequences, of which some are fully fleshed-out orchestrations on the computer and some are merely sketches, and sits down scene by scene and writes it onto paper. He actually takes a pencil writes notes and translates what's in the computer down to notation and in doing that he finishes writing most of the stuff, by adding things here and there that aren't in the computer, making sure he hits things on screen, adding dynamics and color. Then he hands them to me. What I get is usually a fairly fleshed-out sketch not all the time, but most of the time. Sometimes it's too complete; there were some times on Batman he got so many things going that they didn't work together, and I had to sort through them to make sure that what we had would actually work. But he actually does physically write stuff down on paper! [laughs]

LK: When he mocks it up on computer, is that just from playing it in? He didn't mention that part of the process.

SB: He didn't? Oh. Well, yeah. On the first movie, Pee-Wee, he couldn't. He had one little synthesizer and a keyboard and there wasn't a lot of sequencers that could handle that kind of stuff. Getting it to lock to picture was even difficult at that time, there was only one little box that you could get a click to lock to the video. But by the second or third film, technology picked up, and Danny's grasp of it all picked up, too. The beginning of Pee-Wee, he was playing to screen on the piano. By the end of Pee-Wee, he was locking things to click and handing them to me.

LK: But was he notating?

SB: Yeah.

LK: How on Pee-Wee did you set up a system whereby he would write it down, since he hadn't done that at that time?

SB: It all metamorphosed through the film. Bob Badami, the best music editor in town, led us through all the steps and Danny realized what he had to do to get his point across. He quickly realized that handing me a tape was not going to get him what he wants. The more he started writing things down on paper, the more he could communicate. Before that time, he had a perfectly working knowledge of muiic notation because when I joined the band, he had written a piano concerto, fully handwritten for piano and a small ensemble. He considers notation a problem for him, because the fine points of dynamic markings, where they go exactly - he's not good at bass clef, but he does everything in treble clef with an octave marking so you know exactly where he wants it to sound. If he's writing a low line he marks it how many octaves down and is very clear about it. His notation is not strictly normal, but for anybody who knows anything about notation you can look at it and figure out what he's saying. It's not personal, he didn't make it up. It's all real notation, but he uses it in a slightly different way, because of his own limitations. At the beginmng of Pee-Wee it wasn't like he didn't know anything about notation, he perfectly well knew things about notation, he was just scared and reluctant, like we all were, it was the first one. By the end he was writing it on paper and it was all locking to click. In between there, there was some oddball stuff, but that was his first film.

LK: What do you mean, "oddball"?

SB: Well, there vas one scene that was him on tape just playing along, and Bob Badarni and I had to figure out how to work the bar beats and hits and all that stuff. But that was the only time he's ever done that, Iike the first film - from that point on he realized the importance to get exactly what he wants, and to notate it and communicate to me how to get it.

LK: Now, had you done large-scale orchestration yourself?

SB: Before Pee-Wee? No. [laughs]

LK: So you were coming into this blind as well.

SB:: Oh yeah, he dragged me along with him. I'd gone to college, went to UCLA. studied composition and orchestration and then played in a rock band for ten years. I used any orchestration skills only in our largest ensemble, which was eight pieces. And suddenly we had this Pee-Wee's Big Adventure with the full orchestra, and it was a challenge. We had help from the conductor, Lennie Niehaus, in the sense that it went from Danny to me to him. Danny gave me sketches, I orchestrated them the way I thought they would be, and then Lennie took them; basically I arranged them and then Lennie, although his agent doesn't want him to have the credit officially, orchestrated the stuff. It was kind of a funny set-up but he took my stuff and corrected it, made it right, whatever mistakes I was making.

LK: Right, as far as balancing instruments, and sub-dividing sections...?

SB: Yeah, and writing out a full score which I didn't have a clue exactly how to do. So from that project, watching what Lennie did to what I gave him, set me up for the rest of my career. [laughs] Anything I know from the mechanics of orchestration I owe to Lennie, watching how he set up the page, how to make sure the conductor can read it and all that kind of stuff.

LK: What's your working process now with Danny?

SB: I go up to his house and we meet, he plays it for me and we talk about it. I make notes on whatever score he gives me, if that happens. Lately he's been sending his sequences to a computer guy who then prints them out and then we go over the print-out, and he makes notes on the print-out himself.

LK: So you work off the print-out, or a hand-written sketch?

SB: Work off a print-out that he has made notations on top of. The step I told you where he sits and writes it down? He saves himself time by having all the stuff in the computer written down, almost 50% of his writing is right there. As he puts his notes on paper he adds things, changes things on the computet print-out. But that's just in the last two or three projects. The last two projects he did practically half the score as synth pre-lay anyway, To Die For and Dead Presidents. It was bssically just orchestra sweetening once in a while. We had strings and some French horns on Dead Presidents, and we had a small orchestra on To Die For, but they were basically sweetening synth tracks that had all this percussion. We also went in and put rhythm section on top of some of it. Every project has been a little different. Dolores Claiborne was all strings, so it was much more fun for me because there were all these string lines that l had to sort out and make happen in the orchestra.

LK: Danny said "There's never been a note in one of my scores that I didn't write."

SB: Yeah.

LK: Not even a note?

SB: No. An orchestrator's job is to take someone's stuff and make it be what the composer wants it to be. In doing that, you do sometimes "add notes," but you don't change melodies, you don't change harmonic structures, you don't change the composition. I don't know what you're needling at by saying that...

LK: Well, I mean of course you're not writing the melodies, but I'm just trying-

SB: Right. Well, the problem is that people come to me and give me credit for writing Danny's music. They hint that well, "We know that you really do that stuff" - that's why he's sensitive, that's why [agent] Richard Kraft is sensitive. Danny's gotten lots of flak over it. They can't believe that someone who's a rock and roll singer in an offbeat Los Angeles band can actually write the music that he writes.

LK: I was just wondering to what extent Danny's music requires adjustment, without changing the concept, but making it playable...

SB: No. Concepts are never changed. Concepts are never changed except by him. He's in full control of his creative output. I never assume to go and change things. We've had extra orchestrators; at the end of a project when things have to be done, I farm out some of the orchestration, and at certain points we've had some orchestrators who have totally changed his stuff, and we've had to re-do it. We haven't worked with those orchestrators again, because that's kind of what orchestrators see themselves as, frustrated composers most of the time, and like putting their own two cents in somebody else's music. And it just doesn't work with Danny. When he writes down a certain voicing, he wants that voicing. He doesn't want added notes, he doesn't want this or that, he's fairly specific about what he writes and what he wants to get out of it.

LK: I understand I 'm just trying to play Devil's advocate a little bit...

SB: Yeah, I know - Danny's kind of given up on it. He was on the Academy committee for film music and they all just treated him like he was a hummer. Because he's a vocalist in a band, they thought, oh he just sings his parts and somebody else does all the work. That really is not the case. Danny does so much work. He's a workaholic. He spends so many hours in front of his computer, in front of the screen, working on every film, big or small, and he works hard at making sure that each one is something fairly new, that he approaches it a different way. Which is why he didn't want to do Batman 3. He just had no interest in doing that kind of thing again.

LK: He said the reason he didn't do it was, for one, they didn't ask.

SB: Well, besides that. At the end of Batman 2 he said, "I don't want to do this kind of thing again. Big adventure films - suck." Certain scenes he was told, "These are your scenes, go with the music," and he spent a lot of time on details to make the music happen. And it went into the movie and was buried. He could have gotten the same effect by spending half the time. The music didn't have to be so detailed, from the way they dubbed it. Overly detailed music played soft sounds really small. He was frustrated at the end of Batman 2, so whether they asked him or not for Batman 3, he had told me that this was really the last one he was going to do. And since then he's steered away from them.

LK: What were some of the most challenging projects for you two, to take what he was doing to a new level.

SB: Beetlejuice was a big one for me, orchestration-wise. I went through a lot of changes on that on how I orchestrate, from the way I notate to the way I voice things and all kinds of stuff. Emotionally, too, it was a big deal. We had a conductor at the beginning of the project who didn't like Danny, didn't like me. He made me feel like I was nothingc that I was worthless. But by the end of the project I realized no, I can do this. That was an emotional watershed for me. Batman was another big one because it was a lot of pressure. It was a big orchestra, and there was a lot of corporate pressure to make that right. Beetlejuice had barely any corporate pressure because they didn't know what to do with the film anyway. Personally, I think Dolores Claiborne was a big one for Danny, because he changed his palette. All the films up to then had been a regular orchestra with additions of celeste and harp in Scissorhands and stuff like that. But Dolores Claiborne was almost strictly a string orchestra, which put new challenges on him as a composer and me as an orchestrator.

LK: Did you think back to Psycho?

SB: Well, [laughs] we didn't talk about that...

LK: I mean, that's the classic case of an all-string orchestra...

SB: Right, the classic case of a limited palette which Bernard Herrmann did a lot, he would focus on a certain set of instruments and that's what he would write for. Danny, on the other hand, always would approach a film, and whatever he needed, he would throw in. It was like, if this calls for woodwinds, we got woodwinds, call the woodwinds in. Dolores Claiborne was the first one where he said this would be mostly all-strings, there's only three or four cues that had brass and percussion, and the rest was all-strings. That one I think was creatively a challenge for him and me, and the other orchestrator, Edgardo Simone, who we've used the last couple of films.

LK: Just because it's so much work for you to do yourself...?

SB: Yeah. l usually get started, do all the main titles, the big pieces and then after I've set the style and how to deal with the material, I start handing stuff over to someone else so we can get it all done in time.

LK: When you record, do you sit in the booth with Danny?

SB: Most of the time. On Dead Presidents I got to conduct. On other projects I got to conduct one or two days which I really enjoyed. Danny kind of depends on me in the booth to translate. He sits with the director and the director is telling him, "This works, this doesn't work," and Danny then deals with me, "How can we change this while the orchestra is still rehearsing?" I take his notes and we come up with some sort of solution and I call it through the headphones to the conductor to tell the players what to do, to help change it more to what the director wants. So there's a weird chain of command from Danny to me to the conductor to the orchestra.

LK: I heard on Sommersby that they wanted some changes and it took a while.

SB: From my point of view, Sommersby was a major change. It was changed from one kind of weird, oddly romantic movie, a slightly scary movie, to an overly romantic movie. When we finished the first score, the music made it, well, it was what it was on-screen, unsettling. There was a scene where Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, it's kind of a montage where she shaves him. At that point, you were scared, you wondering if she was going to slit his throat because she doesn't trust him, and at the point when she doesn't you're relieved. In the final movie, it's purely romantic, so the music had to be completely different. The second time around on Sommersby was making up for the fact that they didn't want it to be that kind of movie, they wanted it to be more romantic, and that was a challenge and a pain. He had to take some cues that were already written and simply overlay stuff to make it more romantic, because there wasn't time to re-do all the cues. And some cues he did have to do, he had to choose carefully which he could do and which ones he could sweeten.

LK: That sounds kind of hellish

SB: It was terrible. And I wasn't available to do the whole thing, we were on some other project at the time, so we had a couple of other orchestrators who I had to oversee, and it was difficult. When you work with somebcdy as long as I have with Danny, you get a good rapport of what he's talking about and what he means, and what he needs, and a lot of other orchestrators do what I said before, they like to impose their own personality on whatever project they're on.

LK: I was wondering if there examples where that has made it to the final film, so we could maybe compare what it sounds like for Danny to be kind of wrecked by someone. [pause] If it's not anything you wouldn't want to point out...

SB: Well, no, it really isn't. [laughs] Danny doesn't let things get too wrecked. What happens is that on the sound stage, it's a train-wreck, and it just takes a lot more time to record. It's Danny's career, his name up there, so when things are not to his liking, he changes them. And he'll change them with the orchestra sitting there, because... he needs to.

LK: As you started to orchestrate yourself, was it surprising some days to hear what you've come up with?

SB: Oh, yeah. The very first one, Pee-Wee, was amazing when we first heard the orchestra. It was like boom, oh yeah, that is what that sounds like! Dolores was another one. Dolores sounded just like I hoped it would.

LK: He kept mentioning he has a tendency to overwrite, and I was wondenng if you would sometimes get to the stage and it would be like what Dimitri Tiomkin used to do, where you would just start taciting things.

SB: Yeah. Often he'll write all this stuff and as I go through it, I'll sort through it. He may have two conflicting things, "I want this in the brass and this in the woodwinds." And I'll tell him, "These two things will not work. The choice is either to change them to make them work or do them either/or," and often that's what we'll do. I'll mark one tacit, and so we'll listen to the one that I thought was most appropriate, and if it's not happening or he misses the other one, we'll try the other and tacit the horns, that kind of thing. Often times in his music there are choices, so he's not locked in. His creative process lasts until we're done recording, until the mix. Things are still changing, altering, because oftentimes they're changing the film up until that point.

LK: I've heard horror stories of people showing up at the stage and the film has different timings.

SB: The titles to Dick Tracy was a bigger orchestra, we had a jazz piano player and all this extra stuff, and they added two minutes. They told him the night before, "Oh, we added a little bit." He was under the impression, "Well, maybe we can repeat an eight-bar phrase if there's not anything happening on screen," because everything was all printed and ready to go. As it turned out, their little addition was two minutes long, and we had this whole orchestra sitting there so we could do half of it and then had to stop, because this whole segment had to be written. And that was on a Disney film where they were screaming about money. I was being very careful not to hire anybody for anything we didn't need them for, oftentimes you don't know if you're going to get all these cues recorded one day, so you need to have other musicians on call the next in case you don't get it done. Say you need a shakuhachi flute for five cues; well, you don't get to the fifth cue you need to have him on hold for the next day as opposed to not getting him on hold, not hiring him, and not finishing the cue where he's featured. Here Disney was penny-pinching, and the director did this to us. You have to throw up your hands.

LK: He has mentioned that on a couple of films he has designated a cue to be composed by someone else, and indicated in the end credits.

SB: Yes, he has done that.

LK: Have you ever done that?

SB: I' ve usually been too busy. When he does that is when he doesn't have time to finish. On Nightbreed Shirley Walker did one, Jonathan Sheffer did one on Darkman, those are the two I remember. Danny basically sketched it out for them, gave them a couple of ideas, and said, "Here, go with it, I don't have time to finish these scenes."

LK: So then everyone goes around saying that Jonathan Sheffer wrote the entire score to Darkman.

SB: Right.

LK: That must be so frustrating.. You must want to kill people when they interview you.

SB: [laughs] I went interviewing for agents and I've been doing film scores myself, and part of the hard part of my position right now is that they assume I'm Danny Elfman. They give me this old nudge-nudge that you're writing his music. No, no, here, listen to this stuff that I do - I try to make it as different from Danny's as I can, and still maintain what I know and do. I do orchestrate Danny's stuff, it is part of my musical personality.

LK: That must be awkward. Well on Cabin Boy, it sounded not-Danny.

SB: The hardest thing on Cabin Boy was that they temped it with Danny, and so I had to skirt this line between satisfying the director and not doing Danny. When I took the gig, it was originally supposed to be sea music high seas adventure. You know, great! It turns out I only got to do that stuff as many times as I forced it in. [laughs] So, yeah, it's been difficult. I had a commercial offered to me, and they wanted it exactly the way Danny had done this basketball cartoon commercial.

LK: Danny did a basketball commercial?

SB: It was the first animated Nike commercial with Charles Barkley. The music was like King Kong, all this tribal stuff with weird horns and all that. He's done a couple of Nike commercials; the reason he's done It is because they hand him the stuff and leave him alone, and he gets to do what he wants.

LK: And it's only 90 seconds.

SB: Yeah, and it's a challenge to do something like that. But he had done this Nike commercial and it had won some sort of award. So the same company came back and couldn't get Danny and they asked me, and at first I thought, "Oh, great, a Nike commercial!" And then I realized what they wanted was for me to do Danny. And I had to turn it down, I just couldn't do that.

At this point the interview wound down and I chatted with Steve, thanked him for his time. But he did add something indicative of his career and his views on it: "It's a complete hoot. I knock on wood, I consider myself very lucky. I've done the two major things I wanted to do as a kid: I've played in a rock and roll band in front of a lot of people, and I've been able to write and work on music for films. Up to this point, life is a charm!"

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