April 01, 2007

Marrying The Image: Alan and Marilyn Bergman

Celebrating 50 Years as Collaborators, Alan and Marilyn Bergman Discuss The Craft of Writing for Film


Alan & Marilyn Bergman

This past April, attendees at the ASCAP "I Create Music" Expo were treated to a freewheeling interview session during which Marilyn and Alan spoke about the area in which they've made their greatest impact – songs written for film. The interview was conducted by ASCAP's Michael A. Kerker and featured film clips and a live performance. The article that follows was adapted from a transcript of that interview.

MICHAEL: It is my pleasure to introduce Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman. They are two of the finest, most talented and most successful lyricists. Today we are going to talk specifically about songs they write for films but before we get into that, I just want to talk briefly about their background, because you started as pop song artists talk a little about how you met and your first forays into pop writing.

ALAN: We met in 1956 and started writing. I was writing with a composer in the morning and she was writing with the same person in the afternoon. One day he (Lew Spence) decided to introduce us and we wrote a song that day better left unsung, but we had a good time and we've been writing together ever since.

MICHAEL: What was your first major hit?

ALAN: There was a big calypso craze in the country in 1958 and we wrote a song called "Yellowbird." From 1956 to 1958 we wrote a lot of children songs to make rent money. When Marilyn and I started we knew what we wanted to write. We didn't particularly want to write songs for records, but that was a way to get to the point where someone would hire us to do a song for film or for theater. We would read an article or a book and would write songs based on the characters or situations that we read about. We never showed those to anyone. They were exercises that we did all the time, everyday.

MICHAEL: What is your writing technique when you're writing a stand-alone song, for example, "Nice 'N' Easy" or "Yellowbird?"

MARILYN: "Yellowbird" was an assignment for Norman Luboff. He was a very popular choral director in those days, and he was asked by Columbia Records to record an album of calypso songs. He asked us to do this album with him that had to happen very quickly. About a week or ten days later, we had ten or twelve songs written. "Yellowbird" was one of them. They were based on Haitian and Island melodies and "Yellowbird" just stepped out of the album. Writing an album of all calypso songs — there's a point of reference right there. You're in a place, in a culture; with its own language. That was really the first assignment we got to write for characters, even though it was for a record.

With "Nice 'n" Easy," a call had gone out, a kind of an open casting call, that the Sinatra people were looking for a song for Sinatra, a title song for an album of lightly swinging love songs. Every writer in Hollywood submitted something and luckily we got the call. Writing for Frank Sinatra was like writing for a character in a play. You know exactly the language, the look, the attitude, everything.

That was a beginning, because as a result of the success of "Nice 'N' Easy," which I think was 1960, we got a call from 20th Century Fox to write a song for a film. There was an English singer, Frankie Vaughan, and he had come over here, to make his debut film called The Right Approach. I remember that we had a meeting with the then-head of the studio, and he said that he wanted us to write a song like "Nice 'N' Easy." We wrote a song for The Right Approach with Lew Spence. It was never heard again.


(l-r) Accepting Oscars for Best Original Score for Yentl: Michel Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman

MICHAEL: Do you mind working under pressure when a director or producer says I need this song and I need it within a week?

MARILYN: The hardest thing is to get an idea. Once you get the idea, craft or skill come into play. You might use a good part of that week or two weeks just sitting and getting the idea. If the idea is good then you're halfway home.

ALAN: The advantage of having more time is you can write more than one song, you can go down different streets.

MARILYN: You can explore things. When it's needed really fast, there's no time to explore. You have to go with the first thing that feels right.

MICHAEL: Who generally gives you the assignments, the director or the studio head?

ALAN: Usually it's the director.

MARILYN: The business has changed so much since we started. I think a lot of control now is in the hands of music supervisors. We probably got a call from the studio at first, but a little later on we had relationships with the directors, and they would call us.

ALAN: We are lucky in that the directors that we work with are people who really know how to use songs.


"One of the most exciting moments in this whole process is when you have finally written a song and now the director puts it against the images."

MICHAEL: Who chooses the composer you get to work with? Do you get to choose whom you want to work with or are you told?

ALAN: Most of the time the composer is already in place.

MICHAEL: Once you get the assignment, would you say the director is the most important person that you work most closely with as opposed to the producer of the film?

MARILYN: Director

MICHAEL: Does how you write change depending on whom you write with?

ALAN: In the case of Michel Legrand, melodies come first. Sometimes composers like a line or two. For instance, in "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," we just gave Michel the first line. Dave Grusin, on "It Might Be You," wrote the whole melody first.

MICHAEL: Do you have a preference?

ALAN: We always prefer the melody first.

MARILYN: In film, there was a time when the composer who scored the picture was also the songwriter. For that reason, I think a composer needed to have freedom to write a theme or themes that would serve the whole score. Also, it helps us because there's structure there. We always feel that composers, good composers particularly, come up with interesting rhythmic patterns and interesting forms that we as songwriters wouldn't necessarily come up with.

MICHAEL: Do you prefer to work in the room with the composer?

ALAN: We usually don't.

MARILYN: Our process is very private, even with a composer we know well and have collaborated with a number of times. We find that we whisper to each other, it's very strange. Usually we take the melody and go away.

MICHAEL: Let's talk about specific films. You'd written some songs for films that really didn't go anywhere, and weren't that important. Then comes the film, In the Heat of the Night, which really put you on the map as great film lyricists. How did you get the assignment?

ALAN: Quincy Jones called one day and said, "I'm doing this picture and I'd like you to write the lyric, Ray Charles is going to sing the song and maybe we could work together." We said, "Absolutely," and that's how it happened.

MICHAEL: The song you wrote was a title theme. Was In the Heat of the Night a title that grabbed you right away?

ALAN: Well, it was not only the title. The song had a function. You hear it under the opening titles as a train comes into town. The director, Norman Jewison, said, "I want you to write me a song that sets the stage - where we are and what the feeling is in that Southern town. He chose Quincy Jones and Ray Charles to do that, to help enhance that feeling of where you're going and what's going to happen.

MICHAEL: The song foreshadows what's to come in the film. I'm assuming it might have been deliberate that the moment we hear your line, "I've got trouble wall to wall," is exactly when Sidney Poitier steps down from the train. Did the director say that's where he wanted the line to fit, or did you see the image and decide?

MARILYN: One of the most exciting moments in the whole process is when you have finally written a song and now the director puts it against the images. Now, you've certainly seen the film, and you know where the song is to begin and you know where it is to end to the split second. But you don't know until it's put together precisely what word lands on what image. Sometimes it's accidentally wonderful and sometimes not.

MICHAEL: Another line to look out for is "In the heat of the night seems like a cold sweat creeping cross my brow" — just great lyrics.

MARILYN: We had a line in the song, "Stars with evil eyes stare from the skies all mean and white." We were asked to change it. Reluctantly we did, to "mean and bright." It wasn't quite the same. That wouldn't happen today. It broke our hearts for a while.

ALAN: There is something interesting musically in that picture. The director, Norman Jewison, believed when he used source songs - songs from the radio or songs that you hear from a "source" in the film - he wanted every one to be original. He felt that if you use a song that people know it takes you out of the drama. We agree with that. Norman was interested in how the drama unravels musically. There are four other songs in that picture. The murderer runs a short-order place. He goes to the jukebox every night and plays the same song. The song we wrote with Quincy for that is called "Foul Owl." You hear it and, unconsciously, you get the feeling that something's wrong with this creepy guy. Also, when the cop is driving his car, you hear a song called "A Bow-Legged Polly and a Knock-Kneed Paul."

MARILYN: The director said, "I want to know what this guy chooses to listen to on the radio." I think he was correct about the importance of original source music. He said, "I don't want any outside associations." Songs bring many associations that you can't control. We all respond differently and remember different things attached to a well-known song. He said, "I want to be able to write on a clean slate." At that time, Roger Miller had released "King of the Road" and all these quirky country songs were popular. Norman said "I want a quirky country song." It was in a dark scene of the movie. So it was a very interesting assignment.

ALAN: The guitar player on the sessions with the big band was Glen Campbell - he sang "A Bow-Legged Polly."

MICHAEL: Here again, you're writing specifically for a character. I think it's why I often think of you as theater writers because you're writing for either plot or character, to reveal the emotional inner workings of a character.

MARILYN: Well, whether it's drama on film or on the stage, in that sense, yes.

MICHAEL: I travel around the country lot for ASCAP with Jerry Herman and we've also done a lot of events with Stephen Sondheim, and both of them have said they would not know how to write a pop song. They can only write in context. It is clear you have the ability to do both. And even when you write out of context, very often your writing is very specific.

MARILYN: If it is a pop song for a particular singer, like Sinatra, he brings you a character. And both Jerry and Steve have written songs that have come out of their theater scores and have become very popular.

MICHAEL: The next film I want to talk about is a bit more complex and rather interesting, too. It's a film called The Happy Ending with John Forsythe and Jean Simmons. You were given a very specific and, I think, a very difficult assignment. The song from the film, of course, is "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" one of the great standards.

MARILYN: It's a very interesting picture. I think it was before its time. It tells the story of an upper-middle class family in Denver. The husband is an advertising executive — overly ambitious socially and professionally. His wife, the mother of his teenage daughter, is really not able to fit into the lifestyle that her husband has chosen for her. She becomes an alcoholic. To all intents and purposes in the early part of the film, they seem like a couple to be envied. Nobody outside of the two of them, not even their daughter, realizes the stress and strain of their marriage. The picture opens with a flashback to when they were young. The director/writer, Richard Brooks, who was writing the picture for his wife Jean Simmons, said, "I want you to write a song that when you hear it for the first time it is like a proposal of marriage."

ALAN: The second time you hear the song, sixteen years later in the film, the wife has picked up and walked out of her life, leaving her husband and her daughter. Not even knowing where she's going. The director said, "I want the song to be heard again, but you cannot change a word or note. But this time when she goes into a bar and selects this song off the jukebox, I want it to mean something entirely different." Well, that was a really interesting assignment. The composer was Michel Legrand, with whom we had written before.

MICHAEL: Was it one of the most difficult songs to write because of what the assignment was?

ALAN: It was a challenge. But one we were truly attraced to.

MARILYN: Michel, as he often does, wrote six or seven or eight complete melodies for this spot. They were all beautiful, but none was exactly right. And we said to him "What happens if the first line of the song is 'what are you doing the rest of your life'?" He said, "Oh, I like that." He sat down at the piano. Fortunately, the cassette player was going. As long as it takes to play it, that's how he wrote it. I mean, he played the whole thing through — the bridge, everything.

ALAN: And he said, "You mean something like that?" We said, "No. Exactly like that! Don't do anything — just go away." Richard Brooks, after hearing the song, said, "I don't want a recognizable singer. I don't want a third person intervening here. It should be the voice of an anonymous male."

MARILYN: Michael Dees, who is a session singer in Los Angeles, sang it in the film. Wonderfully and anonymously. Barbra Streisand made the first record. Of course it was thrilling.

MICHAEL: Since this was such a specific assignment, were you surprised how the song came out of the film and became a standard?

MARILYN: When you're serving the picture, you can't think about that. In the back of your mind perhaps you're thinking "Is it universal enough so that if it's taken out of the picture, does it need a whole story in order to make the song accessible to somebody?"

ALAN: That's one of the things you may strive for. As lyric writers, your job is to create a song or lyric that will serve the film yet be able to live outside of it if possible.

MICHAEL: At the ASCAP musical theater workshop that Stephen Schwartz runs for us, he often says to try to write as specifically as you can because the more specific you are the more universal it is.

ALAN: That's true. The specifics ground the song in the reality of a drama but also in its afterlife out of the film or show.

MICHAEL: You were given a lot of leeway to write a song for Norman Jewison's film, The Thomas Crown Affair. Let's talk a little bit about that film and the space where you had to write a song.

ALAN: Norman's got great musical sense. As he shoots, he often hears imaginary songs. He's done that several times. Like the train coming in In the Heat of the Night he knew he wanted a song there. In The Thomas Crown Affair, the Steve McQueen character was a playboy who masterminded the robbery of a bank, and what he did for fun was to fly gliders. The character was flying the glider in a cloudless sky but he looks grim. Norman said that he wanted a song to underline the anxiety the character was feeling. Michel played us seven or eight melodies. We listened to all of them and decided to wait until the next day to choose one. We three decided on the same one, a long baroque melody.

MICHAEL: I have to ask you where the title came from because it's so unusual — "The Windmills of Your Mind."

MARILYN: The title was a line at the end of a section. The lyric we wrote was stream-of-consciousness. We felt that the song had to be a mind trip of some kind. When we finished we said, "What do we call this? It's got to have a title. That line is kind of interesting." So we restructured the song so that the line appeared again at the end. It came out of the body of the song. I think we were thinking… you know when you try to fall asleep at night and you can't turn your brain off and thoughts and memories tumble.

MICHAEL: This could be pure gossip, but I heard that Noel Harrison, who is singing this song in the film, asked to change the image of the apple to an orange. Is that true?

MARILYN: I don't know where you got that. The line of the song he wanted changed is -

ALAN: "Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own, down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone."

MARILYN: In Britain, they don't say "shone" in the past tense. They say "shon," rhyming with "upon." The sun "shon" yesterday. He started to sing the song and he sang "tunnel of its own… where the sun has never shon." We said "No, it's shone." And he said "No, it's our language!" And we said, "Yes, but it's our song." So reluctantly, he sang "shone" and our rhyme was intact.

MICHAEL: The film of course, was a huge hit and the song won an Academy Award. We've used the word "theater" a lot this morning and I should say that Alan and Marilyn have written a lot for the theater. Their first Broadway musical was called Something More that they wrote with Sammy Fain, then with Billy Goldenberg they wrote Ballroom. The good news is that they're still writing for the theater. They have written a musical with the late Cy Coleman. It's called Up Close and Musical and it's certainly something to look forward to on Broadway. The reason I'm bringing this up right now is because the next film I want to talk about is Yentl. I've always felt that it really is a theater score because the lyric score you wrote does everything that a great theater score should do - revealing character, giving us a sense of the inner qualities of the character, and moves plot along. Talk a little bit about, first of all, how the film came about. Was it always going to be a musical?

MARILYN: It's based on a story by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer. Barbra Streisand optioned the story years and years ago, when the book came out. She said she wanted to make it as a small film which she wanted to direct. One day we discussed it as a musical. A young woman, Yentl, decides to masquerade as a man in order to be able to study. This is middle Europe, in the 19th century when women were not allowed to study or be students in a seminary. She is taught by her father behind closed shutters to read and study scripture. When her father dies, she decides to masquerade as a young boy and enter a seminary. Once she embarks on this journey she cannot reveal the most essential part of herself, her sexuality - to anybody. There's an inner monologue. We thought this journey would be really interesting done in song. That was interesting to Barbra. The studio was eager for her to make and direct the film.

MICHAEL: Frankly, musicals were going out of fashion at this point. Granted, it was Streisand, but I feel that the general public perhaps couldn't quite fathom someone up there on the screen singing to us. And you found a way to ease us into it and make it work. Talk a little but about that process.

ALAN: You have to "buy a license" to make it acceptable to the audience that one would sing. So in the first song, we use all the techniques of how Yentl would sing throughout the film. In the transition from dialogue to song there's a chant, a prayer. Prayer is somewhere between singing and speaking. So we wrote a prayer that seamlessly becomes singing. When she goes to her father's room, it's voice-over. When she goes out of the room, she sings live. Those techniques are in the first song, "Where Is It Written?," so the audience will accept them as the movie progresses. We hoped.

MARILYN: It was a song in the movie. It explains her character. There's a theater convention — all acting teachers and acting students know this. "What do you want, what does the character want." We wrote with Michel Legrand an "I Want" song that sets up Yentl's situation. Also, as Alan said, it buys her the license to sing. Most of the singing is voice-over, unless she's alone. It was definitely brilliantly sung. I think the picture is the equivalent of a standard song. I think it will always be around. There's an audience who loves this picture and watches it over and over. I'm one of them.

ALAN: And it's soon to come out on DVD.

MARILYN: Yes, very soon I think, with Barbara's comments on it. I think its masterfully done. We're so proud to have been a part of it. It was a dream project.

MICHAEL: I have heard rumors that Yentl might come back.

ALAN: Well, they're talking to us about making a Broadway musical.

MARILYN: Which would be interesting because the producer wants to go back to the Singer short story - a dark mystical tale. We would use some songs from the film, but we would write new songs for all the main characters.

MICHAEL: And of course Alan, Marilyn, and Michel won another Academy Award for the score to Yentl. We have one more film and one more film song that we want to talk about. You can't have a session talking about great film songs or a session talking to Alan and Marilyn Bergman without talking about "The Way We Were." It's one of the standards of the Great American Songbook. How did you get the assignment? Was the title always there? It's a great title.

ALAN: It wasn't our title. It was the title of a book by Arthur Laurents before it became the title of the movie.

MARILYN: Two of the gifts that we got in our career so far were the title of In the Heat of the Night and the title of The Way We Were. This was an assignment to write a song for a great story with two great stars.

MICHAEL: And I gather you had a lot of time.

MARILYN: Time. Oh yes, we were working with Sydney Pollack, the director, who, like Norman Jewison, is very musical and knows how to use music in a film. He wanted a melody from Marvin Hamlisch that was of the '50s. The first time it's heard, it's played live by a band in a nightclub scene. It was to become the main theme of the picture. We then had Marvin's great melody and Barbra's voice to write for. She was not to record the song for two or three months. So we did have a lot of time. The original song we wrote, "The Way We Were," Sydney and Barbra loved. Because we had the luxury of time (and this great title!), we decided to write another song. They liked that one too. Barbra made a demo cassette of each song and Sydney put them against the images of the main title. When we saw how the song married with those images, there was no question in anyone's mind that the first song was the right one. We call the second song "The Way We Weren't."

MICHAEL: Well the end of the film is a scene that is certainly one of the great scenes in a film. It's often quoted; it's been quoted in other films and in television shows. The end of the movie in front of The Plaza is a classic scene, a great movie scene,. Everyone knows this scene, but I think it's your song that makes it an iconic scene in motion pictures. I think everyone would agree.

MARILYN: When we wrote the song we secretly had that scene at the end of the picture in mind. We felt that if we didn't hear a few sniffles in the audience when they previewed, we hadn't done our job. To us it was clear that this is where the song had to land, to pay off. I can't say enough about what Barbra brings to a song. There are a handful of singers who not only sing what you write, but bring something else - another layer. When you have a wonderful story, filmed by a great filmmaker, with great actors, you are blessed to be asked to have a part in it.