January 2018
Interview with author Nathan Platte

During the holidays we caught up with author Nathan Platte via email and asked him a few questions about his latest book, Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood, now available from Oxford University Press.

READ: See our book review here.

Q.: Why Selznick?

So many reasons! Here are a few of the big ones:

1.I love the music of his films, which feature the work of some Hollywood’s musical legends—Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, and Herbert Stothart.

2. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Rudy Behlmer, it was clear that Selznick played an important role in the music of his films and that his relationships with musicians merited further study.

3. I wanted to work in archives, and the efforts of Selznick and his composers are among the best preserved. Selznick’s papers—which constitute thousands of boxes and many, many musical scores—are at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin); Steiner’s papers, which feature most of his sketches, are at Brigham Young University; Rózsa’s and Waxman’s papers are at Syracuse; Tiomkin’s are at USC; studio materials from RKO and MGM are at UCLA and USC; and the Margaret Herrick Library (the research library for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) possesses a range of resources, including clippings files and collections of people who worked with Selznick, like Alfred Hitchcock.

Q: Over what period of time did your research and visits to archives take place?

It’s been a long but rewarding journey. The archival trips for this project began in 2007 and ended in 2015. I don’t live near any of the archives, so my visits were usually brief and intense. There are some advantages to that—you have to be very focused and deliberate about your work, and I returned to almost all of the collections to follow up on new ideas or questions that arose from an earlier trip.

Q: Based on your experience, what advice would you give to students interested in archival research?

Archives are full of surprises; they regularly defy expectations. This can be exhilarating. It can also be intimidating, even frustrating. Think of this: a keyword search algorithm is designed to deliver what you think you need (if it doesn’t, you turn to a different search engine). Archives don’t abide by that rule. If you show up at an archive thinking, “I’m here to discover x, y, and z,” there will likely be some disappointment when one or more of the items proves elusive. But if you arrive at an archive thinking, “I’m fascinated by this topic and am trying to learn more about it,” your chances for a fruitful encounter improve. You might not find exactly what you’re expecting, but you’ll usually find something interesting. And sometimes those surprises take you in directions you didn’t even think possible.

Also, every archive has its own staff, reading room hours, copying/camera policies, and protocol for pulling materials. (If materials are kept off site, it may take days for requested materials to reach the reading room; there may be limits on how much you can pull in one day.) A conscientious researcher reaches out to the staff and learns the rules of the field before arriving. You’ll have a much more meaningful and enriching visit if you do.

Q: What is your most memorable moment when you were consulting the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the Cinema-TV Library at USC?

May I share two? First, Ned Comstock works at the USC Cinema-TV Library and helps researchers with archival materials. He is a wonderful person whose knowledge of Hollywood, film music, and Tiomkin is, by all indications, limitless. He is an invaluable guide, and our discussions are among my most memorable experiences of the collection.

The other moment—or moments, really—is seeing anything in Tiomkin’s hand. In his sketches and personally annotated short scores his exuberance as a musician and person shine. I was initially surprised to see that the detail in Tiomkin’s sketches varies widely from scene to scene. But this inconsistency is incredibly valuable to a researcher: it becomes a barometer for gauging his relationship to a scene and its music. At some points, Tiomkin shows profound trust in his orchestrators. A rough sketch including a melody and bass line (and often an in-person consultation with the orchestrator) was enough. At other times, Tiomkin becomes meticulously detailed—the page swells with annotations referencing camera cuts, onscreen actions, and musical instructions. His sudden fervor stops you in your tracks. Here every detail matters.

Q: How did your contract with Oxford come about?

I was lucky. Oxford started publishing a “Music/Media” series as I was beginning work on this project. By the time I was ready to start shopping it around as a book, Norm Hirschy, an acquisitions editor for the series, was already interested. We had a few conversations and he helped me through the process of submitting a proposal for the book. Everything took off from there.

Q: What’s next?

I have some forthcoming articles that will be published in anthologies—one article on music and special effects in The Wizard of Oz, another on the rejected music from Gone With the Wind, and a third on Max Steiner’s unusual work on the musically-oriented Four Daughters (1938) and its sequel, Four Wives (1939). I’m also working on the films of Robert Wise, whose wonderfully eclectic filmography includes The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want to Live!, The Haunting, and The Sound of Music (among many others). Music has a lot to say in those films, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it.

FURTHER READING: Nathan contributed a post, Unanswered questions in Gone with the Wind’s main title, to the Oxford blog that includes an image from the Gone with the Wind music score.

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