Contest: Win a Blu-Ray of “Alice Through the Looking Glass”

Posted on December 9, 2016 at 10:05 am

Copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, and Mia Wasikowska star in “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Tim Burton’s extravaganza inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy. And I have a copy to give away!

Send me an email at with Alice in the subject line and tell me your favorite fantasy character. Don’t forget your address! (U.S. addresses only). I’ll pick a winner at random on December 15, 2016. Good luck!

Reminder: My policy on conflicts

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Contests and Giveaways Fantasy

Interview: Dan Heath, Co-Composer of the “Big Eyes” Song

Posted on January 13, 2015 at 8:00 am

Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” is based on the real-life case of Walter Keane, who said he was responsible for the hugely successful “big eye” paintings of children in the 1960’s, and his wife Margaret Keane, who, as determined in a court case, really painted them.  It is a haunting story with an appropriately haunting theme song, co-written by singer Lana Del Ray and her frequent collaborator Dan Heath.  He talked to me about how they worked together and what he learned from writing for reality television.

This is a story that began with an image and then became a drama and then you take it into a third dimension with music.

It began with Lana singing a melody into my voice memo on my iPhone. And then I took that and started building on it after having seen the film because I wanted it to blend in with the score by Danny Elfman as well and be a bit seamless. And I started building up chord changes, and the progression, and the textures and the layers and the strings and the bass and all that stuff based on the melody she was singing. And really my favorite part of the song is the bridge where it sort of breaks down and she ends up saying “it’s amazing what women in love will do.”  It’s such a pretty part because it’s a kind of descending pizzicato line and then it kicks back into this sort of epic chorus. But it was really nice to get to make the chorus so big because it’s quite dramatic and I like the dynamic range of the pieces. It was subdued in the verses and sort of explodes into this sort of epic thing in the chorus where she’s singing “with your big eyes and your big lies.” The process of writing was actually really good fun. We got quite a bit of creative freedom on it as well so there weren’t too many boundaries and it felt like we just got to do what we love to do which was amazing.

How did the score influence the way that you composed or orchestrated the song?

I’m a massive Danny Elfman fan and I’m a huge Tim Burton fan as well and I think whatever those two get involved together is just magic.  And so that was a good place to start.  Listening to the score, I did get different cues from different parts of the movie.  It wasn’t like I was sort of referencing. I just sort of got a vibe from it and feel from it and based on that vibe and feel, I definitely got a lot of inspiration from the film and the music in the film.

What was the first instrument you ever learned how to play?

Piano actually.  I started playing by ear when I was around five or six and when I was a bit older I started taking lessons and then got pretty serious about playing piano and really just getting good at it. By ten I think I was disciplined enough to practice six hours a day. That’s was the first instrument that I learned how to play and that’s what I write on today.  My piano skills just aren’t what they used to be but I still compose on the piano.

Did you grow up in a musical family?

My dad is not really that musical but he got me into a lot of good music when I was growing up. He got me into the Beatles and the Who and the Kinks and Abba. My mom was a classically trained pianist as well so she had more music on her side. I have to say that there was always a lot of music going on at home when I was growing up and I also got to see a lot of musicals growing up as well like “Phantom Of The The Opera” and Cats and “Starlight Express” and “Les Mis” and I always really enjoyed going to those things because they are really cool. And I went to a music oriented school when I was growing up as well. I was in the orchestra and I played a lot of classical music back then as well sort of like rock from the 60’s 70’s and 80’s music. I got introduced to Led Zeppelin when I was about 12 years old and that flipped my world upside down because it was incredible music. It still is. The first album I ever bought was that Batman soundtrack which Prince did a lot of songs on. And I used to listen to that like every night before going to bed I liked all the song and then I loved Guns n Roses Appetite for Desctruction. The first album that really just like sent me into a different place was Led Zeppelin IV, which was just incredible.

How did you start working with Lana Del Rey?

She used to go out with my best friend in the world about 10 years ago. I was living in Boston going to school at the time and I would go down and visit them in New York and that’s how I met her. And then over the years we stayed in touch and she used to play me bits and pieces of music she was working on and I used to play her bits and pieces of music I was working on. And then one day before she signed her record deal with Interscope we wrote one of her singles called Bluejeans and it was our first writing experience together ever. So it was a real success that we got to write that and it did so well and that sort of launched me into the songwriting world.

When you’re working with her are you thinking about her voice? Are you gearing it for her?

Totally yes, the stuff I write for her is different from the stuff I write for anybody else. I think the stuff I write for her has got a lot more of a cinematic feel, and it’s very magical and very ethereal and very emotional. I have just been working with her for a few years now, so I think I’m starting to get what she likes and what she doesn’t. But normally like if I really like something, she really likes it too which is really cool. It is great because we’re a good team.

You did cues for reality shows for a while, right?

I was very grateful for it at the time. You know, getting to do music and getting paid for it as well. It kept the lights on and it kept the rent paid.

I would imagine that it was actually quite a learning experience.

It did get my technical chops up a lot on how to deliver styles. It’s definitely worth a lot doing it. I was writing about three or four pieces of music a day sometimes in all sorts of different styles. There is comedy, there is tension, there is suspense, there is action and all that sort of stuff. You are turning out cues so quickly that I definitely learned a lot. I would say especially in the work ethic area, just knuckling down for a good ten hour day writing music.
It did the job and it was a great learning experience too and as I said before I’m extremely grateful that I had that because it did keep the lights on and did enable me to write music, get paid and also focus on my own stuff when I wasn’t doing that.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my own EP right now which is really cool. I’m doing four tracks and all of them are going to be quite film-score-y but all of them are going to have original vocals and melodies and I’m working four different singers for each track. And so I’m really excited about that. I’m also going to be working on Lana’s new album. And I’m working with these very different singers, trying to get some good songs oout of the door. And hopefully I’m going to be doing a film this year as well, my own film, which I would love to do I am not sure where or how yet but that’s my hope.

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Composers Interview

Big Eyes

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Copyright Weinstein Company 2014
Copyright Weinstein Company 2014

In Woody Allen’s 1973 film “Sleeper,” set in a decadent future, Diane Keaton plays a superficial socialite who tries to think of the highest compliment she can give to an amateurish painting.  “Oh, it’s Keane! It’s pure Keane!” she exclaims.  Audiences of that time would recognize that reference to Walter Keane, responsible for the wildly if inexplicably popular “big eyes” paintings of sad-looking waifs.  When the concept of “kitsch” (cheap, popular, low-brow, and corny “art”) first came to the United States in the 1970’s, the Keane images were often used as an example.

Note that word “responsible.”  Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) was “responsible” for the success of the paintings but he was not responsible for producing them.  It was revealed in a dramatic trial that while Walter Keane claimed credit as the sole artist behind the paintings (and prints and books), he had never put a brush to canvas.  Every one of the paintings was created by the only artist in the family, his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams).

Director Tim Burton, whose film about notoriously awful movie director Ed Wood is one of his best, has created another very good film about very bad art.  Like that film, “Big Eyes” is highly stylized, with heightened period detail exaggerated to reflect and comment on the art that it depicts.  At one point, in some distress, Margaret pushes a shopping cart through a grocery story, seeing the big eyes in the faces of everyone she looks at.

This film also draws on the 60’s era beginning stages of the women’s movement to anchor the story.  Margaret took her daughter and left her first husband at a time when most middle class women were expected to stay home and defer to their husbands.  She arrived in San Francisco at the dawn of the “consciousness raising” era, at the epicenter of movements advocating more focus on individual needs and personal fulfillment.  But Margaret still thought of herself as powerless in her relationship with Walter, in part because it was her nature and the way she was raised to defer and get along, partly because she was dependant on him.  She married him in a hurry because her ex-husband was threatening to sue her for custody at a time when single mothers who left their husbands and had to find jobs had very few rights.  “I’m a divorcee with a child,” she tells a friend.  “Walter is a blessing.”

It was also partly because she loved him, at first.

Margaret was pretty good at painting the pictures, but Walter was undeniably a world-class genius at selling them.  He was very good at marketing up: he sold to movie stars and appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  He got a commission for a mural at the World’s Fair.  And he was even better at marketing down. When he noticed that people who could not afford the paintings were taking home posters from the gallery, he realized that there was an opportunity there.  “Would you rather sell one $500 painting or a million crappy reproduced posters?”  Pretty soon there were Keane images for every budget, with the originals in an art gallery and the copies in stores, alongside kitchen utensils and t-shirts.

Margaret signed her work “Keane,” and Walter slipped easily into taking credit for it.  He told Margaret (correctly) that no one took women artists seriously and that (also correct) that he was willing to do the kind of glad-handing and public appearances that she is not.  So, she stays locked in her studio painting all the time, increasingly isolated, finally even from her own sense of who she is.

The eerie look in the big eyes of the children in the paintings begins to seem haunting. Margaret realizes that she has to leave another husband. And she has to tell the truth.

Tim Burton has a story with the grotesquerie built in, not just the outlandish images but the turbulence of the era. Waltz has the showier role and delivers as a man whose ebullience mutates into a grandiosity from which there was no return. Adams, as the woman whose passion for expression grows — finally — into the ability to speak for herself with her voice as well as her brush.

Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing themes including emotional abuse, broken marriages, fraud, some sexual references, and brief strong language.

Family Discussion:  Who was responsible for the success of the big eye paintings?  Why did Walter lie and why did Margaret let him?

If you like this, try:  “Ed Wood” from the same director

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Based on a true story Drama

Danny Elfman: Film Score Composer

Posted on November 8, 2014 at 8:00 am

We attended a superb concert at the Kennedy Center, with the National Symphony playing some of film scores Danny Elfman composed for his long-time colleague Tim Burton. So I was especially glad to see this excellent interview with Danny Elfman with Sean O’Neal from the A.V. Club, a part of their Set List series. I loved his story about coming up with the idea for the “Batman” theme, one of my favorites, on an airplane.

It’s one of my funny stories, because instead of being in a car when the title music hit me, I was on a 747 flying back from London, and all I was thinking was, “I don’t have the ability to pick up a napkin and write music.” I’ve never taken music lessons. I can write, but I need a keyboard and some kind of reference to write. And I didn’t have a keyboard. Now I try to travel with a little equipment, and if it ever came up again, I could grab my little mini-computer and play these parts. But at that point, I had nothing—certainly not a laptop. All I had was this little Sony tape recorder, so I kept running into the bathroom and laying down track after track after track, hoping that they would later mean something. I was thinking melody, counter-melodies, rhythms, all this stuff separately, and I kept getting more ideas and running back.

I couldn’t do it at my seat, because I didn’t want to sing into my tape recorder with this guy sitting next to me. And it got to the point where I’d open the bathroom door and there’d be two flight attendants standing there saying, “Sir, are you all right?” And I’d go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” I’d go back to my seat and be back in the bathroom 10 minutes later, and this time there are three flight attendants. And clearly they’re looking at me as some sort of hopped-up junkie who’s just shooting up every 10 or 15 minutes. I’m sure they didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t appear to be sick or throwing up or green around the gills. If anything, I was excited.

But also the bathrooms were incredibly noisy, so when I got home to my studio—as I had feared—the plane erased the entire piece of music from my mind. Because they played landing music, and I think it was something like “Yesterday” by the Beatles, and it was a total memory eraser. I came off the plane and all I could think of was “Yesterday,” and I’m like, “What happened to the Batman theme? ‘All my troubles seemed so far away…’ Fuck! I’m screwed!” And I turn on the tape recorder, and I have about 30 minutes of notes on there—and all I’m hearing is loud engine noise. I finally heard little bits of myself coming through it, and I could catch a little bit of a “bum bum-bum-bum bum” and I’d go, “There’s a bit of the rhythm, okay, I got that.” And finally it all came back to me and I was able to write it down. But I was really relieved, because it almost is the exact main title to Batman.

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Composers Music
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