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In this episode, Carl King examines To Die For Starring Nicole Kidman + Score by Danny Elfman (1995)
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SHOW NOTES / LINKS
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Get TO DIE FOR on BluRay
To Die For / Main Titles by Danny Elfman
To Die For / Soundtrack CD
How To Mix Orchestra + Metal
The Vandals / Behind The Music
7 Questions With Brooks Wackerman
I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where EVERY WEEK, we learn about music, filmmaking, and the other creative arts. To support this podcast, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month.
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Carl King The Human Updates
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3 – We have a special 50th Episode coming up next week, and I am bringing back a previous guest, one of my favorite people in the world. So be sure to be aware of that. And now, let’s get into this Week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of the Week.
TO DIE FOR (FILMMAKING ANALYSIS)
This week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of the Week is: To Die For, from 1995. Starring by Nicole Kidman, Directored by Gus Van Sant, and screenwrited by Buck Henry. All based on the novel by Joyce Maynard. And that novel was inspired by a real-life story. What was that real-life story inspired by? We don’t know yet.
Plot and Structure
Let’s talk about the Plot, Structure, and Format. What do we notice here? Much of this story is told through documentary-like interviews. Although, not shot on what would have been lower-budget documentary cameras. Nope, all of the scenes (aside from Nicole Kidman’s documentary footage) were shot with the same look as the dramatic film. Which technically wouldn’t make any sense.
And rather than putting the camera there in the moment, and experiencing the story from the inside, we have many talking heads delivering exposition. A bunch of statements of facts, which are non-cinematic. So half the time we’re not there watching things happen – we’re listening to someone TELL US what happened somewhere else.
Much like this podcast. There’s not a heck of a lot happening, cinematically. If you turned off the sound, there would be no point.
What if, instead, they put the camera where the action is and let the events unfold in order? What if they were to get rid of all the interviews and pick one character’s viewpoint from which to experience the story? That would be an alternate, or maybe a NORMAL, way of getting the job done.
Regarding the structure, from the beginning of the movie, we already know what’s going to happen in the end. Not because the story is so simple we can easily figure it out — but because the movie STARTS with the ending. Nicole Kidman’s husband, Matt Dillon, ends up dead. And it’s likely SHE was behind it. So the filmmakers reveal the WHAT… but not the WHY or HOW.
It’s unusual that when Matt Dillon is killed later on in the narrative, as the past catches up with the present, there’s still about 30 minutes left in the movie. So in a way, the main action of the story is done. I had to wonder, where else can we possibly go from here?
Usually everything that comes after that event is the Day-Noo-Mahn, sometimes more elegantly pronounced as De-Now-Ment. And this is a long as heck one of those.
CHARACTER / PSYCHOLOGY
Let’s talk about the Character and Psychology. Nicole Kidman’s character Suzanne Stone is Ambition taken to the level of psychopathy. As she says to the camera: “What the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.” Now remember that line because I will reference it later.
This film was made in 1995, a couple of years before social media existed. If you were alive back then, you’ll know it was much more difficult to develop an addiction to media attention. Film cameras were expensive, it wasn’t easy to get on TV, and stages were reserved for humans having talent.
It was so much harder to fake it til you make it. So that sort of “delusion of celebrity” was rare.
But these days: Nicole Kidman’s character would be considered just another average LA person — or anyone with social media. I could probably walk outside right now and run into someone just as obsessed with their career and image. And they might even think Nicole Kidman’s character was totally normal.
Like all smart cult leaders, her character finds a group of low-status outcasts, in her small town appropriately named Little Hope… and makes them feel special. In this case, it’s an easy target: 3 teenagers with terrible posture. And about that… why can’t teenagers seem to sit up straight or speak clearly? We don’t know yet.
And then she uses those teenagers to pull a Charles Manson — in return for just $1,000 and some CDs. I’m assuming it was some Soul Asylum Compact Discs and not certificates of deposit.
There’s a scene where Joaquin Phoenix is in jail, explaining his feelings towards Nicole Kidman. And he says this: “It was like I was in one of those, you know those great movies where everyone is coming out of their graves? With half their faces missing and their eyes hanging out and their lips falling off?
And they’re all walking around and kind of grunting. And they’re all looking for the same thing. For regular live people to eat their flesh and drink their blood. And they can’t help themselves. Because they’re dead. And it’s just what happens. That’s what I felt like.”
But was he saying that HE was the Zombie? Or SHE was the Zombie? I think SHE was. Because SHE was only alive on the surface, and looking for a living person to feed off. Of.
THE WRITING AND EDITING
Let’s talk about the writing and editing. The cuts are abrupt and comedic, and that gives the movie a playful tone. It’s cute and clever. And if not for those sudden tonal shifts, the movie would have been much more serious and dark, in my own totally subjective opinion.
For example, 14 minutes in, there’s an abrupt cut to an external shot: a woman screaming inside a barn. At the time, I thought, now what is THAT about? But unfortunately it was a scene that comes later in the movie. Elements like that remind me of experimental film splicing or a collage.
Later on, there’s a scene where Nicole Kidman is manipulating Joaquin Phoenix to murder her husband. It’s a super tense scene, and she stares into his eyes in silence.
But then Sweet Home Alabama comes on the radio, and she flips moods manically and screams in joy, “Oh, F, I love this song! Don’t you love this song?” She cranks it up, jumps out of the car and dances around in the rain. This is just one of the juxtapositions and flip-flopping of tones.
My favorite part of the final 30 minutes… is one of the last lines that the character Lydia says, which is a response to Nicole Kidman’s earlier line, and it is this: “If everybody were on TV all the time, there wouldn’t be anybody left to watch.”
So I gave this film 5 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd. And now, let’s move onto this week’s Analytical Musical Analysis of the Week.
TO DIE FOR (MUSICAL ANALYSIS)
Most weeks, I like to examine one film and one piece of music — every week. But it’s rare that I examine both a film and its own musical score in a single episode. But as I was watching To Die For, I remembered it happened to be scored by Danny Elfman.
To Die For / Main Titles by Danny Elfman
So let’s talk about that score. As far as I know, there are only EIGHT publicly-available cues from this film. Maybe 19 minutes of music total, from a film that feels pretty long, at an hour and 46 minutes.
I previously knew 5 of these cues very well from an out-of-print 2-disc Danny Elfman compilation called Music For A Darkened Theater Vol. 2. And you can see my copy still has the old Boogie Woogie sticker on the back. That’s the CD store I bought it from in Sarasota, Florida in the 90s.
But I also ordered The Original Soundtrack CD recently, shrink-wrapped, for $25 and 16 cents on Amazon. And this one is ALSO out of print, but it has EIGHT cues — 3 of them I had never heard before. I’ll put a link to that CD on Amazon because it seems to be the only place to hear the additional tracks.
To Die For / Soundtrack CD
Now let’s run through my notes on all 8 of the cues quickly. 1 – Main Titles – Here’s a question. What is that first instrument we hear? I suspected maybe a high-ranged Vibraphone played with soft mallets. But even through headphones, I can’t hear any attack on the notes.
Dale Turner says he thinks it might be an instrument called a “Cristal Baschet.” That’s a glass keyboard played by dipping your fingers in water and then rubbing the keys. But I can also hear the tremolo effect of a vibraphone motor, which could have been added to a Cristal Baschet. If you happen to know what instrument we are hearing there, let us know!
2 – Suze’s Theme. This one features staccato exotica vocals, pitched percussion, and pizzicato strings. It sounds like an intimate vocal group, maybe 3 or 4 people — and I believe I hear Danny Elfman himself singing in there. Was it the same little group who sang that opening line of The Simpsons?
3 – Busted – This one foreshadows the harmonic ideas from the film Good Will Hunting, also directed by Gus Van Sant, and that came out two years later 1997.
4 – Weepy Donuts – As I was listening, I thought, hey, why does this cue title sound familiar? Well. The title “Weepy Donuts” seems to be used in MULTIPLE Danny Elfman film scores.
According to the internet, it’s a sort of inside joke between Danny Elfman and Gus Van Sant. It goes on to say that title was used not only in To Die For, but Good Will Hunting, Psycho, Terminator Salvation, Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot, and others.
5 – Creepy Creepy. This is the first of the tracks NOT on the Darkened Theater CD. It’s 51 seconds, and as promised, it’s a creepy track.
6 – Murder! (This one was ALSO Not on the other CD. It’s 3 minutes 53 seconds, and contains lots of theme and variation from the Main Titles. Being so familiar with those Main Titles, for me, this was like hearing an alternate studio take of a popular song. Huh.
7 – Angry Suzie. This is another track not on the other CD, and it’s only 37 seconds. And I don’t know why, but this sounds like an orchestra brushing someone’s teeth.
8 – Finale – This one is a sparse compositional cloud that includes amazing fretless bass tone from a bass player named John, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit. Because folks, foolks. I think this score gives us a good opportunity to think about TWO concepts in film scoring: what I call Orchestra-isms, and Theme & Variation.
First: Orchestra-isms, which is my own term I made up. Others sometimes call these cliches. And that’s not necessarily meant in a negative way. Orchestra-isms are like instant, microwavable — but USEFUL ideas.
For instance, in a lot of films scores, flutes will play flute-like parts. Just two very common examples of Flute Orchestra-isms would be:
1 – Quick flourishes and scale runs. Usually doubled an octave up on piccolo.
2 – Or doubling the Violin I parts.
I made myself a whole document full of these for each orchestral instrument. If I’m stuck on a piece of orchestration, like — what the heck can the Oboe be doing right now?? I can reference my list for ideas.
So when a composer or orchestrator starts working on parts for a film score — these are easy places to start. Musical ideas don’t often spring out of nowhere. As people who have listened to music our whole lives, we associate instruments with the IDIOMATIC PARTS they play.
Now you might think: isn’t this just vomiting out the same stock music according to formula? Well, consider other genres of music. How often is a hi-hat part the same as every other song? And how often is a metal rhythm guitar part made of power chords going chugga-chugga?
Well, most instruments are like that, even in an orchestra. Trumpets tend to get the job done by doing their Trumpet-like thing. Not by doing a Glockenspiel-like thing.
When writing so much music in a short amount of time, film composers typically focus on the bigger picture creative statement — not agonizing over some totally inventive use of timpani mallets.
It’s also about efficiency: orchestral musicians for film are trained to play these expected orchestra-isms the FIRST TIME they read them. They don’t go home and learn the music and practice — they throw the sheet music onto the stand, they hear a few clicks, and off they go.
Aside from a fatal mistake, what you hear in a film might be first or second take. Beyond these players being incredible sight-readers, there is a ton of relatively similar material from score to score. The harps tend to do this, and the trombones tend to do that. Because when you’re spending $10,000 an hour, you don’t want to write some bizarre, overly-complicated part that no one can play.
Another thing related to Orchestra-isms in this score is what could be called “Genre-Hopping.” Because Danny Elfman gave us EXTREME METAL spliced together between light exotica vocals.
But notice that this is not exactly “Genre-Blending” because the mash-up happening here is mostly horizontal, not vertical. It’s the same way Mr. Bungle would cut and paste genres together in sequence. But not very often on top of each other.
So in To Die For, when it’s a metal segment, it’s very metal, played on metal instruments. And when it’s an orchestral section, it’s an orchestra playing orchestral instruments. They do overlap, but not primarily. By the way, I have a segment about this topic in Episode 29, called How To Mix Orchestra + Metal. And I’ll put a link to it in the show notes.
How To Mix Orchestra + Metal
Now, there is conflicting information out there regarding the musicians that played during the metal sections. In the liner notes of the CD I have, Danny Elfman claims to have played guitar. Or at least some of the guitar? But it has no other information about the musicians.
According to IMDB, the musicians credited on this score are:
Warren Fitzgerald of The Vandals on Guitar
And John Patitucci on Bass?! That doesn’t seem likely, although it’s totally possible.
The To Die For Soundtrack CD might clear this up. Because on the back, it credits the bass playing to a different and more likely John: that’s right, John Avila of Oingo Boingo.
Whichever John it was, it’s really nice FRETLESS work, with a beautiful tone. I recommend listening to it carefully, in headphones.
The credits also list Brooks Wackerman on Drums — which is good news because he happens to be one of my old favorites. I loved his playing on The Vandals Look What I Almost Stepped In. In the show notes, I’ll include a link to a song from that record called “Behind The Music.”
The Vandals / Behind The Music
And I did an interview with Brooks Wackerman in 2008 and you can find that on my website. So I will also post the link to that in the show notes.
7 Questions With Brooks Wackerman
By the way, this music was written the same year as Disco Volante. I suspect Mr. Bungle fans would appreciate this particular score, or at least the Main Titles. It reminds me of John Zorn’s Naked City, with those sudden blasts of noise. And this music might seem crazy, but it makes a lot of sense when you hear it along with opening visuals, which are a bunch of newspaper clippings about a murder.
Now let’s talk about the Theme and Variation happening in this score. That’s where a composer takes a simple musical idea, or motif — and uses it in different ways.
It can be played faster or slower, they might add notes or remove notes, they might play it backwards, play it inverted, change it from major to minor, move it to different instrumentation, or some other type of modification. And in my own totally subjective opinion, that’s one of the best things about film scores.
So In To Die For, I noticed two very simple main motifs. They are both introduced in the first 30 seconds of Track 1, Main Titles.
Motif 1 – First appears as two pairs of half-notes, played as F# – A – G – B. And that sounds like this.
Motif 2 – Staccato rhythm on two chords B minor and A# minor. And that sounds like this.
So here’s a fun game and learning exercise for you: burn those little musical fragments into your mind, and then listen through the score. See how many times you can catch those two ideas being creatively twisted by Mr. Danny Elfman.
OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple, YouTube, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts.
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