This has been an amazing year for documentaries about Hollywood’s Golden Era, and no one made that era sound good like composer Bernard Herrmann. Known predominately for his work with director Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann composed scores for seven of Hitch’s films including the likes of Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). Brandon Brown has gone on a quest to uncover the man behind the music with his documentary, The Lives of Bernard Herrmann. Brown talked with me about his research process, what we can learn about Herrmann, and more!
Kristen: Can you give some background on the creation of this documentary? What sparked your interest in Herrmann? And was there a specific point where a casual interest turned into “I need to go beyond” and make this a documentary?
Brandon Brown: Since I was in middle school, I listened to Herrmann’s music, and as I got older, I got more interested in his background and life. Towards the end of my senior year in college, I was struggling with what I would do next. For years I have always wanted to see a new documentary on Herrmann and eventually I thought to myself: “Why don’t I make it myself?” I began researching, contacting people who studied his work, developed a script, setting up the interview with Alec Baldwin and a year and a half later I’m working on promoting and creating awareness about the project. I have always been interested in Bernard Herrmann. He inspired my filmmaking, even though he wrote music for films. The methods and the mindset behind the music he wrote has inspired my artistic approach to filmmaking.
What’s the production process been like? Where did you start with getting this documentary together? Was there, and is there still, a list of top people you feel that, without their voices, this project just can’t provide an accurate summation of Herrmann?
I have been doing research on Bernard Herrmann and working on a script for the film over the past year and a half. It took six months to set up our first interview for the film, which was with actor Alec Baldwin. Along with scheduling the interview, we worked to align the schedules of the cinematographer, the sound recordist, the producers and the manager of the location that we used, which was Manhattan Center Productions in New York. The interviews of the film that will be most important include Herrmann’s daughters and the people that he worked with such as director Larry Cohen, who was also a personal friend of his.
What is the focal point of this documentary? What are you hoping to uncover, express to audiences about Herrmann and his career?
The goal of the documentary is to illustrate the role Herrmann’s music played in the history of cinema and how it continues to still be relevant today. We hope to uncover parallels between Herrmann’s personal life, working relationships and his music. We also hope to uncover why it continues to resonate with audiences.
There have been many documentaries regarding classic films in development over the last year or so. What do you think keeps directors wanting to tell these types of stories and, with the fact many are crowdfunding, what do you think keeps Hollywood studios from investing money in them, especially considering their love for biopics and all?
I can’t speak for other directors, but the reason why I want to do this documentary is primarily to preserve Herrmann’s history and legacy. That may be what these other directors want to achieve, as well. I believe that a biographical documentary should incorporate cinematic or dramatic elements, while making the subject a relatable character. These shouldn’t play as a Wikipedia entry on film, because that isn’t very enjoyable to watch. Hollywood studios aren’t investing in biographical documentaries because I’m assuming that these types of films do not generate as much money, plain and simple. It seems documentaries are more commonly showcased on television and streaming platforms today. HBO, Netflix and even cable networks like CNN and A&E seem to be the proponents of documentaries.
Is there a particular Bernard Herrmann score/film that holds special memories for you? Was there one that acted as a “catalyst” for the documentary?
Vertigo was the Herrmann score that changed the way I listened to film music. After hearing that score, I wanted to delve into more of his work by listening to more recordings and watching films that used his music.
You announced you just interviewed Alec Baldwin, so where do you go from here? Since the release date isn’t until sometime next year what’s top priority over the next few months?
We are currently fundraising and applying for grants so we can continue to shoot the project on schedule. Paying crew, securing locations, renting equipment and traveling all adds up, which is why we took to crowdfunding. Once we finish our crowdfunding campaign, we will schedule our next interview and conduct it most likely towards the end of August.
What’s one special element/story/interview about Herrmann that you’re excited for fans to hear/learn?
I look forward to covering Herrmann’s radio and television work, as it hasn’t been given proper attention in a film. I think audiences will be surprised to learn how much of an influence he had on these mediums, aside from his major influence on cinema.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.