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In Picture-Perfect Harmony

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

‘Basic Instinct” director Paul Verhoeven goes back to his “Soldier of Orange” days when art was the primary goal. Jerry Goldsmith (“L.A. Confidential”) becomes an equal partner with the filmmaker rather than a composer-for-hire. Sidestepping endless studio meetings and decision-making by committee, Renny Harlin (“Cliffhanger,” “Die Hard 2") breaks out of the action-adventure mold. Oscar nominee David Newman (“Anastasia”) forgoes his usual six-figure price tag and scores a movie for free.

No, Hollywood hasn’t suddenly divested itself of cynicism and commerciality. It has just joined forces with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a project--entitled Filmharmonic--pairing leading filmmakers and film composers. The collaborations, sponsored by the orchestra, will explore what can happen when entertainment and high culture collide.

The first Filmharmonic creation, “1001 Nights"--a 23-minute movie with live original score--will premiere at the Music Center on Thursday. If additional financing comes through, the Philharmonic hopes to complete at least four more installments as regular features of its upcoming seasons and tours.

The goal of Filmharmonic is not only to tap into local talent but to build a bridge from the orchestra to the broader L.A. entertainment community, Esa-Pekka Salonen explains. Composers and directors will have creative parity and be freed from box-office pressure, in contrast to the Hollywood norm. Self-interest, he admits, also enters in. If Filmharmonic entices the visually oriented younger generation into the concert hall . . . well, that, too, would be nice.

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“We’re creating concertos for film and orchestra,” Salonen says. “We’re also connecting with our cultural milieu or folklore which, in Los Angeles, happens to be movies. In academic circles, film composers are seen as sellouts and worthless, but it’s just that the system works against artistic quality in their work. With the Philharmonic’s nonprofit status comes freedom--this is the first time a large symphony orchestra has given these composers a forum to do what they do best.”

The opening foray, “1001 Nights,” is an animated short based on illustrations from a 1996 book by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, inspired by “Arabian Nights.” Directed by Mike Smith, an animation designer whose credits include work on “Natural Born Killers” and “Tank Girl,” it features music by Newman.

A short on wildlife photographer Peter Beard, in which Harlin and composer Graeme Revell (“Dead Calm,” “The Crow”) hook up, is set for the fall. Verhoeven and Goldsmith are teaming up on a piece slotted for spring 1999, followed by “Beetlejuice"/"Edward Scissorhands” collaborators Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, whose work is expected that fall. The final installment, scheduled for spring 2000, will pair composer Elmer Bernstein (“The Rainmaker”) with an as-yet-to-be-determined director. None of the last three projects has yet taken form.

“We’re dealing with very different individuals so the first piece won’t be like the second and the second won’t be like the third,” Salonen says. “We’ll end up with tremendous variety--which is frightening, but great.”

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Putting music and movies together on an equal footing isn’t unprecedented, of course. The early days of film spawned many such collaborations, including D.W. Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, with music by Joseph Breil, and the 1924 “Entr’Acte,” which Rene Clair synchronized to the music of Erik Satie. Eisenstein’s 1938 “Alexander Nevsky” relied heavily on Prokofiev’s famous music. Sometimes referred to as a “cinematic opera,” the film’s climactic battle scene depends as much on the score as the imagery for impact.

Though music was pushed into the background with the ascension of talkies, the studio system of the ‘40s and ‘50s also nurtured exemplary marriages. Think Bernard Herrmann/Alfred Hitchcock with “Psycho” and “Vertigo,” and Herrmann and Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane.” And contemporary filmmaking has its share of examples: Independent director Peter Greenaway cut scenes from “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” to Michael Nyman’s music, and the Steven Spielberg/John Williams collaborations on “Jaws” and “E.T.” are lodged in people’s minds. But as the risk and cost of filmmaking increased, the relationship between music and movies became strained.

“Everything changed when movies became a product--and music a marketing tool,” observes William Moritz, a film professor at the California Institute of the Arts. “Now there’s tremendous pressure to turn out a certain kind of score--preferably with a top 10 hit. And since composers are no longer under contract at the studios, they have much less autonomy. I know some, in fact, who’ve been thrown off the set.”

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Goldsmith, who had only three weeks to score “Air Force One” and nine days for “Chinatown,” has experienced the frustrations firsthand. “If I sit down with Paul [Verhoeven] on a commercial film, it’s me giving and him taking,” says the composer who studied classical music at USC. “Even the term ‘film composer’ is kind of a slight. Andre Previn, who worked for MGM, is still trying to live it down after 30 years.”

Filmharmonic redresses the balance, Verhoeven points out: “Most scoring these days is like sound effects,” he says. “Music is tertiary . . . on the third or fourth level. This series goes back to the origins of movies. It marks a shift in the balance of power.”

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Filmharmonic was born 18 months ago when Salonen sounded out a handful of entertainment executives about forging a bond with the show biz set. Richard Kraft, whose Kraft-Benjamin Agency represents film composers, suggested that the Philharmonic initiate film projects--like “Fantasia,” he thought, but with original music this time. Since he assumed the entertainment world and the arts world would never meet, it was exciting to be offered an “olive branch,” he says.

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“I love music,” says the agent. “I have 6,000 soundtrack albums. But I never go to concerts, which I consider snooty and elitist.”

He’s not alone. Over the years, the studios and networks have maintained a distance from L.A.'s cultural institutions--considering them the domain of Old Wealth in Pasadena and Hancock Park. If Hollywood felt unwelcome, the arts world felt abandoned, uncertain how to reach out to the increasingly powerful West Side.

“I find it mad that in a place like L.A., there’s the entertainment industry--and then there’s the Phil,” Salonen says. “We should be in constant dialogue instead of completely isolated.”

Kraft found Salonen surprisingly approachable--like a “young studio executive,” he recalls. When the conductor gave his OK to the film/music idea, the agent and his partner, Lyn Benjamin, volunteered to produce. Financing for “1001 Nights” fell quickly into place. Kraft and Benjamin are now traveling the globe trying to get money for the rest.

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Lining up the right talent was another priority and they asked Salonen for ideas. He suggested Harlin, a friend and fellow Finn. With the conductor’s approval, they approached Newman, Goldsmith, Elfman and Bernstein, all clients at the time.

Like the other principals, Kraft and Benjamin are working pro bono. “As agents, how many remakes of old TV series can we get excited about doing the music for?” Kraft wonders. “We’re getting enough out of this creatively that we’re content with 10% of nothing.”

History factored strongly in the pairings. Goldsmith brought in Verhoeven. Elfman tapped Burton. Newman called up Glendale-based production company Hyperion Studio, whose president, Tom Wilhite, worked with him on an animated feature and at the Sundance Institute.

Hyperion, as it happened, had been talking with Amano about translating his artwork into computer imagery. The goal was to release an animated feature of the piece, an exploration of the fantasies and uncertainties that occur when destiny unites a man and a woman.

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“That the Filmharmonic series coincided with our project was one of those happy accidents--out of which came a new type of art,” says Wilhite, a production chief at Disney in the early 1980s. “This is neither a film being scored nor music that’s illustrated--but very much a joint evolution.”

After Newman looked at Amano’s drawings, he discussed the intermingling of story and music with the artist. Amano then worked up storyboards that animation specialist Mike Smith, brought in in October, interpreted. Smith interspersed computer graphics with watercolors, cutouts, collage and gouache and sent updated tapes to each of the other collaborators every two weeks.

Bellsystem24, a Japanese marketing concern, is financing the project with a little help from Amano. With its painstaking drawings and high-tech visuals, “1001 Nights” will cost a reported $2 million to $3 million, and is projected to be the most expensive of the Filmharmonic offerings.

Animation also presents obstacles to the collaborative process, Newman points out. “With live action, you can shoot a lot of footage and insert new scenes,” says the composer, a violinist/pianist with a master’s degree in conducting from USC. “Course corrections are more time-consuming when drawings are involved. Still, we spent far more time planning the project than executing it. And no one’s process was mitigated by the other.”

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Amano, for his part, expected more one on one: “I was looking forward to working with Mr. Newman as I would with with a Mozart or a Wagner--collaborating with him in a nontraditional way,” said the artist on the phone from Tokyo. “Still, the project enabled me to consolidate my work in illustration, set design, oil paintings and other genres through the use of computers.”

Working free of commercial pressures was “like opening a window,” Smith suggests. “In traditional studio animation, you introduce the hero, heroine, villain, comic sidekick in the first 10 minutes,” the 40-year-old Englishman notes.” Instead of having a whole language at your disposal, the same sentence is repeated over and over. It’s rare to be allowed to interpret the moment and develop characters--at least in the U.S. This was a definite break from the Disney mold.”

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The rest of the creative teams are formally on hold until money comes through. Their projects--all planned as live action, are budgeted at $500,000 to $1 million each.

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Verhoeven, who must shoot this summer to make a spring 1999 deadline, has mulled over the project a lot. Initially slotted for the fall, his collaboration with Goldsmith was pushed back to allow the director to find his way. For him, it’s not only an opportunity but a puzzle to be cracked. Too little dialogue and you need a tale that can be told primarily through music. Too much dialogue and the music becomes mere underscoring, he says.

“The problem is coming up with a story that can be told in 20 minutes--one sufficiently grandiose to call for an 80-piece orchestra that doesn’t demand thousands of extras, cannons, planes or spaceships,” Verhoeven says. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. We don’t have $10 million to shoot the battle of Waterloo or Gettysburg, yet a man walking down the street won’t motivate a conductor to raise his baton.”

(Not so, Salonen insists. “I understand Verhoeven’s point of view but music is a very flexible medium,” he says. “You can create moments of great intimacy with a vast orchestra or moments of violence with one instrument.”)

Verhoeven is considering stories by Guy de Maupassant and Edgar Allan Poe, public domain authors he can use for free. If that fails, he may try a “smaller” approach: filming paintings about the life of Christ or a ballet in which choreographer and dancers are the primary expense. Goldsmith, who expects an equal say in the decision, is thinking along a different line. He’d like T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland"--or something more abstract.

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Harlin didn’t anguish about his subject matter. Inspiration struck last summer when he was vacationing on Montauk, Long Island, at the home of Peter Beard who lives part-time in Kenya. Harlin figured he could showcase the photographer’s life and work--and weave in footage of Africa, as well. Revell, another Kraft-Benjamin client, came aboard this month. Already commissioned to do a symphony incorporating African music, he seemed like a perfect fit.

“I just hope that my footage is so strong and beautiful that I don’t have to cram in three images a second,” Harlin says on the phone from Rio de Janero where he’s researching another film. " I don’t want to use those old MTV tricks. After this, I’m planning a full-length documentary on Beard. As someone frustrated by my ‘action adventure’ image, I know a lot of people don’t expect this from me.”

Next month, Harlin and Revell will be heading for Kenya. Basing themselves at Beard’s “Hog Ranch,” they’ll interact with the Masai tribe--some of whom may be flown in to perform with the Philharmonic when the Beard film is shown.

“The first lesson I learned in Hollywood is ‘never spend your own money,’ ” Harlin says. “But to show you how crazy I am, I’m footing the bill myself. So far, I’ve invested $500,000. I live in hope that someone will get interested and finance it--if not, I’ll pay the price.”

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According to the producers, funding for the rest of the series is imminent. “Corporations--including some in Hollywood--see this as a great way of marketing themselves,” says Benjamin of Filmharmonic, which has generated interest in orchestras worldwide. “And since we hope to record the productions as videos, they’ll have a life beyond the concert hall--and serve as a revenue source for the Philharmonic.”

Still, courting the studios and networks is like walking a tightrope, Kraft admits. “The goal is to enlist show business financing--without the interference usually associated with it,” he says.

If Hollywood does step up to the plate, it will mark a further thaw in the standoff with the entertainment community--a relationship Salonen has gone out of his way to mend. Under his tenure, the orchestra has not only recorded the film music of Herrmann but played symphonic works by Goldsmith and Williams during its regular season.

“One of the main problems with symphony orchestras is that they’ve lost connection with their geographical and cultural realities,” says Salonen. “Everyone is trying to do the same thing. Symphonic music is based on the Germanic/Central European tradition, but that’s not the whole truth. The Filmharmonic series is a way of acknowledging that we’re a symphony orchestra in L.A.”

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Willem Wijnbergen, the new managing director of the Philharmonic has high praise for his colleague: “I don’t know of one other conductor with the courage to do a project like this. It would never happen in Europe,” he says.

Some of his continental colleagues say he’s been co-opted, Salonen concedes. “I’ve gone from uptight Central European music circles to doing a film with Paul Verhoeven,” he says. “That distance, without question, is vast. From their point of view, it’s easy to be categorical but I’m dealing with an incredibly complex culture here.

“I’ve learned to be careful in my judgments--especially with sentences that begin ‘Culture is . . . ,’ ‘America is . . . ,’ ‘Classical music is . . . ,’ ” he continues. “Large segments of society don’t regard Shakespeare as the greatest dramatist or symphonies as the most important compositions.

“I’m grateful I encountered this truth so early in life since it would be harder to cope with at 60. I don’t feel like I’m selling out--I feel like I’m doing something important.”

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* “1001 Nights,” Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $6-$63. (213) 365-3500.


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