As a child of the '60's I was aware I was growing up during a "sexual revolution," and I knew that in some sense Alfred Kinsey was the father of that revolution, but I knew little else about him until I read Bill Condon's script.
I was surprised to find that Kinsey had done his work in Indiana in the 1940's - truly mid-twentieth-century middle-America. The route he took from that middle to the edge of a new frontier was the path of science - fanatical data collection to be exact. That process of collecting and cataloging the natural world, beginning with insects and ending with humans, led him to see variation as the ultimate truth.
It wasn't obvious what music the film needed. The characters are mostly scientists so even though the film is suffused with sex, that heat is always tempered by the cool detachment of the characters.
I came to feel the most interesting thing about the film was the very traditional world from which Kinsey and his very untraditional work sprang, and so the score ended up being quite "traditional" in its tone and instrumentation - more so than most of my work. I also tried to express Kinsey's loneliness, his otherness. And right at the start of the film I sought to establish a theme for his love and study of the natural world, so we would see that his later work with human sexuality was part of that same interest.
It's not unusual for a score to play the emotions of the characters, but in this case it seemed more important than usual not only because of Kinsey's difficulty expressing himself, but also because some still view his work as dangerous, irresponsible, even criminal. How do you feel about his use of data from pedophiles? His manipulation of his colleagues and their sexual lives? It's more interesting to contemplate these questions if you can feel his own fragility.
Most of us are both hero and monster - Kinsey is just a bit more of both. If the score is any good it allows the audience to experience both these aspects of the man and his legacy.
Written and directed by Bill Condon
Produced by Gail Mutrux
Composed, Orchestrated and Conducted by Carter Burwell
Music Editors: Todd Kasow, Barbara McDermott
Contractor: Sandy Park
Recorded by Alan Silverman at Right Track Studio A509
Mixed by Mike Farrow at The Body Studio
Starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, Chris O'Donnell
U.S Release November 12, 2004
The score was orchestrated and conducted by Carter Burwell. The contractor was Sandy Park, the copyist was Tony Finno, the music editor was Todd Kasow, and Dean Parker was Carter's assistant.
The musicians were:
Violins: Sharon Yamada, Lisa Kim
Viola: Robert Rinehart
Cello: Alan Stepansky
Bass: John Patitucci
French Horns: Phil Myers, Erik Ralske
Clarinet: Jon Manasse
Bassoon: Tom Sevcofic
Oboe: Shelly Woodworth
Flute: Nadine Asin
Piano: Ken Bichel
Harp: Stacey Shames
"...Carter Burwell's strong score contains evocative strains
of musical Americana." - Todd McCarthy, Variety, Sept. 7, 2004
" Also indispensable ... is the inimitable Carter Burwell, whose distinctive score [adds] much-needed warmth to Kinsey's often chilly manner. It is impossible to imagine the film nailing its cathartic wallop of an ending without Burwell's masterful contributions." - Mr. Beaks, Ain't It Cool News, Sept. 9, 2004
"'Kinsey' reunites filmmaker Bill Condon and composer Carter Burwell, continuing the austere, profoundly melancholy approach introduced via their previous collaboration, 'Gods and Monsters'. Performed by a small ensemble of musicians on loan from the New York Philharmonic, the score is exquisitely nuanced, creating deeply romantic music that operates via uncommonly intellectual terms. Burwell keeps passion in check, instead favoring minimalist melodies that play their emotions close to the vest. Like the famous sexuality research the film profiles, 'Kinsey' is human yet clinical, exploring the physical within the framework of the cerebral." - Jason Ankeny, allmusic.com.
Academy Award®-winner Bill Condon (GODS AND MONSTERS) turns the microscope on Alfred Kinsey in a portrait of a man driven to uncover the most private secrets of a nation. What begins for Kinsey as a scientific endeavor soon takes on an intensely personal relevance, ultimately becoming an unexpected journey into the mystery of human behavior.
Liam Neeson stars as Kinsey, who in 1948 irrevocably changed American culture with his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Interviewing thousands of people about the most intimate aspects of their lives, Kinsey lifted the weight of secrecy and shame from a society in which sexual practices were mostly hidden. His work sparked one of the most intense cultural debates of the past century – a debate that rages on today.
Using the technique of his own famous sex interviews, KINSEY recounts the scientist’s extraordinary journey from obscurity to global fame. Alfred Kinsey grows up the son of an engineering teacher and occasional Sunday school preacher (John Lithgow). Rebelling against the rigid piety of his home life, and drawn to the world of the senses, Kinsey becomes a Harvard-educated zoologist specializing in the study of gall wasps.
After being hired to teach biology at Indiana University, Kinsey meets and marries a witty, free-thinking female student, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). In the course of his teaching he discovers an astonishing dearth of scientific data on sexual behavior. When students seek him out for advice about sexual concerns and problems, he realizes that no one has done the clinical research that would yield reliable answers to their questions.
Inspired to explore the emotionally charged subject of sex from a strictly scientific point of view, Kinsey recruits a team of researchers, including Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton). Over time they refine an interviewing technique which helps people to break through shame, fear, and guilt and speak freely about their sexual histories. Kinsey also attempts to create an open sexual environment among the team and their wives, encouraging them to ‘swing’ years before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
When Kinsey publishes his Male study in 1948, the press compares the impact to that of the atom bomb. Soon Kinsey graces the cover of every major publication; he becomes the subject of songs and cartoons, editorials and sermons. But as the country enters the more paranoid Cold War era of the 1950s, Kinsey’s follow-up study on women is seen as an attack on basic American values. The ensuing outrage and scorn causes Kinsey’s benefactors to abandon him, just as his health begins to deteriorate. At the same time, the jealousies and acrimony caused by Kinsey’s attempt to create a private sexual utopia threaten to tear apart the research team and expose them to unwelcome scrutiny.
Kinsey spends his last days in a vain attempt to secure funding. He dies in 1956, fearing that his life’s work has been a failure. It is only through his contact with a final interview subject that he glimpses the positive effect he has had, and also begins to understand that the basic question of where sex ends and love begins is something that can never be completely answered by science.
To read more about the film, click on the red triangles below.
THE GENESIS OF KINSEY
On January 5, 1948, American culture was irrevocably changed. That’s the day Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published by the staid medical publisher, W.B. Saunders – and in a sense, it’s the day America started talking about sex. The book became not only a runaway bestseller and media sensation, but the spark that would later ignite the sexual revolution of the 1960s and fuel the increasing sexual tolerance of the ensuing decades. At the time, Kinsey was dubbed the “American Freud” and compared with other great scientific pioneers like Galileo and Darwin.
Before Kinsey’s book, one of the most vital elements of human behavior was simply not studied by serious researchers. Why, he wondered, were people so ignorant and silent about such a major aspect of human existence? Driven by a fierce curiosity, as well as a deep-seated emotional need, Kinsey opened up a new world of human exploration. After the publication of Kinsey’s book, a nation awoke. Yet today, the questions that Kinsey raised – about why and especially how we pursue intimacy – are as controversial, compelling and relevant as ever.
This is why writer-director Bill Condon accepted the challenge posed by producer Gail Mutrux, who had been seeking the right filmmaker to develop the life and times of Alfred C. Kinsey. “Kinsey changed the way America thinks about sex and the way we talk about it, yet as a man he has mostly been forgotten,” explains Condon. “Behind all the breakthroughs and controversy, there was a basic idea that I’m not sure people heard too clearly at the time. Having spent twenty years collecting over a million gall wasps, Kinsey discovered that not one of these tiny creatures was identical to another. He took this biological concept of individual variation and applied it to human sexuality. It was Kinsey who first said that each person’s sexual make-up is unique, and that therefore the term ‘normal’ isn’t relevant when dealing with human sexuality. There’s only ‘common’ or ‘rare.’ It’s still a radical notion today.”
The more Condon read about Kinsey, the more he realized that his drive to explore sex in a strictly scientific context also had an extremely personal dimension. In particular, Condon was struck by how these two aspects of Kinsey’s psyche were inextricably linked. “A potential pitfall when making a biographical film is the tendency for the personal drama to overshadow the subject’s accomplishments,” Condon observes. “An emphasis on private struggles and crises can diminish what caused the figure to merit public attention in the first place. What drew me to Alfred Kinsey was the intimate connection between his personal life and his scientific project.” As with James Whale, the subject of Condon’s previous film, GODS AND MONSTERS, “Kinsey’s life and work are really one and the same.”
In his lifetime, Kinsey was an extremely controversial figure, and he remains so today. But the filmmakers decided that the only way to approach this story was with a Kinsey-like attitude: utterly frank, inquisitive, and non-judgmental. “I’ve found that the film acts as a sort of litmus test for one’s own ideas about sexuality,” says Condon. “Kinsey was a very complex man, in some way damaged beyond repair. I thought it was important to present it all, and let people form their own opinions.”
Condon spent over six months doing research, reading oral histories, Kinsey’s own writings, related contemporary material and no less than four biographies, particularly Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s acclaimed Sex The Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey. As Condon explains, “There’s the official version of Kinsey’s life, which is less interesting, and then there’s the fascinating personal story that Jonathan was able to uncover.”
Condon also went to the Kinsey Institute in Indiana and interviewed scores of people who had known and worked with Kinsey. “One of the people I spoke to was a man named Clarence Tripp, who’d become involved with Kinsey’s project after the Male volume was published,” notes Condon. “Tripp was one of two main photographers Kinsey used for the filmed parts of his research. He was a protégé of Kinsey’s and later became a noted author in his own right. He was forthcoming about everything, full of interesting stories.”
Of Kinsey’s three research team members, Clyde Martin (played by Peter Sarsgaard) and Paul Gebhard (played by Chris O’Donnell) are still alive. “Gebhard’s in his eighties now but absolutely sharp,” says Condon. “He’s a remarkable character. I had to ask him about some delicate things such as the open sex that went on among the team members, how it would happen, what the specifics were – and he was as casual about that as he was about what he’d had for lunch..”
Kinsey’s wife, Clara (“Mac”), died in 1982, but Condon had the chance to meet with two of her granddaughters. “They have such a strong resemblance to her,” he notes, “that I got a wonderful sense of her character through them. She really lives on through the stories they tell.”
When Condon began writing the script he took all the facts and remembrances he had gathered and attempted to mesh them together in a way that would become more than the sum of their parts. Most of all, he wanted to avoid the usual sentimental conventions of the biopic form and create something more dynamic. So just as Kinsey described his famous sexual interviews as “prisms” that revealed a person’s past, Condon designed his film to act as a prism, reflecting the many facets of a man as well as the shifting sexual attitudes of a society.
“To me, one of the most remarkable things about Kinsey is that he had a genius for getting people to open up about the most intimate aspects of their lives,” explains Condon. “So I thought it might be interesting to use this interviewing technique as a way into Kinsey’s personal biography.” For Condon, KINSEY soon became what he calls “the ultimate talking heads movie. After all, that was his great accomplishment - sitting opposite people in a one-on-one setting and getting them to talk.”
When Bill Condon’s first draft came in, producer Gail Mutrux was thrilled by how he had resolved a complex life into a compact and entertaining experience. Mutrux had previously worked on such acclaimed biographically-based films as QUIZ SHOW and DONNIE BRASCO, so she already understood the type of nuanced approach necessary to turn real lives into movie experiences. “I loved that Bill’s script presents a man who was so vital to American culture in a very even-handed way,” she comments. “What’s wonderful and rare about it is that the story doesn’t make any final judgment about Kinsey or his work, but simply presents his life, and what was happening around him, letting the audience come away with their own feelings about the man and his effect on the world.”
WHO WAS ALFRED C. KINSEY?: A PRIMER ON HIS LIFE AND TIMES
Alfred Charles Kinsey, whose name would become synonymous with sex, was born in 1894, in the midst of a Victorian America that kept all talk, and often even thoughts, of the body and its desires under strict lock and key. His father, a stern Methodist and Sunday school teacher, as well as an engineer, taught Kinsey that a sexualized modern society would inexorably lead to the downfall of human morality. Though his father wished him to follow in his footsteps, Kinsey was from the start a free spirit and rebel. Against his father’s demands, he attended Bowdoin College to study biology and psychology, graduating magna cum laude in 1916, then received a Doctor of Science degree in taxonomy from Harvard. In August 1920, Kinsey came to Indiana University as an assistant professor of zoology, but few could have foreseen the sharp turn he would take when he began to study what he called “the human animal.”
Kinsey made his mark early on with his research in taxonomy and evolution. During the first 20 years of his career, he became the world’s foremost expert on the gall wasp, a non-stinging insect about the size of an ant. He amassed the world’s largest collection of the insect, still held today by the American Museum of Natural History.
At Indiana, Kinsey met Clara Bracken McMillen, a bright chemistry student and fellow free spirit who shared his interest in insect evolution, and with whom he fell in love and quickly married. Then, in 1938, in response to student demands for realistic sex education, Kinsey began to teach a marriage course, which, despite the mild name, focused daringly on the sexual aspects of partnership. The classes became biggestly popular and students began to ask Kinsey for sexual advice. Unable to answer many of their urgent questions and concerns, and still reeling from his own confusion about sex, Kinsey realized that very little was known about human sexual behavior.
Applying the same type of fervor that he had to his entomological research of gall wasps, Kinsey devoted himself to studying human sexuality, pioneering a field that was essentially absent in America. Kinsey assembled a research team to take “sex histories,” elaborate interviews that aimed to get to the root of what people were doing in their bedrooms. By the mid 1940s, he had opened the Institute for Sex Research (since renamed the Kinsey Institute) on Indiana University’s campus and started compiling the data for a book, funded by the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation.
Kinsey began by collecting the sex histories of his students, then his colleagues, then as many people as he could convince to take part in the study in places ranging from gay bars to suburban neighborhoods, hoping to compile as diverse a sampling as possible. Through a process of investigation, Kinsey developed a unique questionnaire and interviewing technique that addressed more than 200 different types of sexual behavior. His researchers were trained to be friendly, easy-going and completely indifferent to what they heard, no matter how shocking or surprising. This allowed for the participants in the study to share their most intimate secrets. Once the interviews were completed, the compiled data was crunched on an early-era computer.
1948 saw the publication of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which sold out its first printing of 25,000 in days. Within months, the book had sold over 200,000 copies, a seemingly impossible achievement for an academic tome. It was translated into eight languages, demonstrating the worldwide hunger for sexual information. The book’s revelations were myriad. Kinsey’s research suggested that between 67 and 98 percent of men had sex before they were married depending on social class, that 50 percent of husbands had extramarital affairs, that 92 percent of men admitted to masturbating, and that 37 percent of American males had at least one homosexual experience.
The response was a mix of shock, exasperation and celebration at the release of this long-hidden information. The always bow-tied professor quickly became a household name and legend. His wife, Clara, also made the media rounds, memorably telling McCall’s magazine that her husband’s work represented “an unvoiced plea for tolerance.”
Five years later, Kinsey published the companion volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which reported similar results. This time the reaction was entirely different. Whereas the book about male behavior was mostly lauded, the book about women was widely attacked. It seemed that America wasn’t ready for Kinsey’s finding that 62 percent of women reported masturbating, nearly 50 percent of women had engaged in premarital sex and 26 percent acknowledged extramarital affairs, among other bombshells. These were, after all, America’s mothers and mothers-to-be circa 1953.
Consequently, Kinsey became a scientific and cultural pariah. The Reverend Billy Graham preached against his effect on moral purity. Congressional investigators, in what was then the McCarthy Era, suggested he may have been influenced by Communists and part of a plot to weaken American values. The Rockefeller Foundation dropped its support of Kinsey and he lost his vital academic grants. The battles took their toll on him, and in August of 1956, Kinsey died of a heart attack.
Had he survived, he would have lived to see, a decade later, William Masters and Virginia Johnson publish their own landmark study Human Sexual Response (1966), which further redefined sexuality as a healthy human trait of complex individuality. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, America was awakened to the sexual revolution, with millions of high school and college students attending the sexual education courses that Kinsey had pioneered decades earlier.
Today, remarkably, the controversy over Kinsey and his reports rages on, impacting debate over major issues at stake in American society, from sex education to gay rights. In this heated atmosphere, Kinsey’s studies, and the man himself, still come under attack. One of the most contentious aspects of Kinsey’s history is the accusation that he might have been involved in illegal sexual research on children. The truth is that absolutely no evidence of this exists. John Bancroft, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, has said: “From my first day as Director of the Institute in 1995, I was confronted by such allegations and the need to rebut them. Kinsey never carried out experiments on the sexual responses of children; neither did he employ or train anyone else to do so for him.”
However, as depicted in the film, Kinsey did interview pedophiles in his effort to obtain information on an aspect of human sexuality that had previously been ignored. The apparent source of much of his published data was a man who had kept detailed notes on an extensive number of sexual encounters, some of them with children. Today, there is much deliberation by fellow scientists and historians over the validity and scientific value of this data, but Kinsey was forthcoming about where the controversial information came from and his own views of why he chose to use it.
Kinsey's reports and techniques remain a lightning rod attracting storms of debate. A small but vocal group of conservative activists use Kinsey and his legacy as scapegoats in their attempts to block the funding of sex education programs and important sex studies. Because Kinsey ushered in a new era of sexual awareness, he is seen by opponents as representing all that is morally corrupt in contemporary society. Grants for recent academic studies, including research with profound implications for public health, have been threatened, with Kinsey’s name being used to justify the opposition.
As of yet, no one has repeated Kinsey's extraordinary research on such a broad scale, or shown that his main conclusions were wrong. Meanwhile, the institute he founded at Indiana University, renamed the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction (www.indiana.edu/~kinsey), continues to carry out scientific study in a field that might not exist at all without Kinsey.
KINSEY’S DECADE-SPANNING DESIGN
“ There was an amazing picture, kind of funny but also touching, of a naked man standing against a background of graph paper – an exposed human being who’s become a scientific subject. To me it summed up what Kinsey was trying to do,” recalls Condon. When Condon showed the picture to Richard Sherman, the production designer, Sherman suggested that it might provide a visual motif for the film. So as Kinsey’s project gathers momentum, the graph paper grid works its way into the design, sometimes dominating an entire set (as in the interviewing “lab” room), at other points reflected in background objects like lamps and room dividers. “When the project starts to unravel, the grid also begins to disappear,” Condon explains, “until Kinsey at his lowest point collapses in a vast circular library.”
Condon and Sherman also decided to take a unique approach to recreating the past. “The earlier sections of the film are heavy with period detail, but as we move into the years of Kinsey’s sexual research (the 1940s and 1950s) we backed off a bit,” explains Sherman. “I think an overemphasis on period can sometimes create a sort of veil over a movie,” adds Condon. “Since the issues Kinsey was exploring are still so relevant, we tried to achieve an almost timeless quality in the later parts of the film – to convey the idea that in some ways things haven’t changed at all.” For the same reason, Condon decided not to use title cards or superimposed dates. “There is the occasional marker -- a man in uniform during the ’40s, or the McCarthy-era Congressional hearings of the ’50s – but mostly we tried to maintain a feeling of immediacy.”
An early decision was made to shoot the film in New York and New Jersey, rather than Indiana where most of the story takes place. The primary reason was to have access to the extraordinary pool of New York actors – especially the dozens of local actors who played Kinsey’s myriad research subjects. “We only had 34 days to shoot what is actually an epic story,” explains the director. “During the 1940s Kinsey and his team took the sexual temperature of America by visiting every region of the country, often several times. Lacking the time and money to recreate those trips, we relied on actors’ faces to suggest the scope and diversity of the research.”
Condon’s parade of overly qualified “day players” included many theatrical luminaries, among them John McMartin (“Into the Woods,” “Follies”), Kathleen Chalfant (“Wit,” “Angels in America”), Jefferson Mays (recent Tony® winner for “I Am My Own Wife”), John Epperson (a/k/a Lypsinka), Reno, Katharine Houghton, Kate Reinders (“Gypsy”), David Harbour (the upcoming Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), and Laura Linney’s father, renowned playwright Romulus Linney, who plays Rep. B. Carroll Reece.
Key locations in New York included three university campuses: Fordham was chosen for an architectural style that resembles Indiana University; Bronx Community College was used for the classic marble rotunda mentioned above; and Columbia University’s historic Havemeyer lecture hall became the setting for Kinsey’s “marriage course.” Other primary locations included a 19th century Plainfield, New Jersey house that stood in for the Kinsey family home; and a building at Letchworth Village in Stony Point, which was transformed into Kinsey’s laboratory and office, where he and his team conduct their sex histories.
With the locations set, Condon collaborated closely with a team of artists devoted to innovative style, including cinematographer Frederick Elmes, A.S.C., who had previously shot a diverse range of visually exciting films including BLUE VELVET, THE ICE STORM and THE HULK, as well as production designer Richard Sherman and costume designer Bruce Finlayson, with whom Condon worked on GODS AND MONSTERS.
When Elmes read the script for KINSEY, he felt it was right up his alley. “I thought it was fertile ground for creating a unique visual style,” he says. “Bill and I began simply by talking – a lot of coffee drinking and having dinner and drinking wine, and we began to zero in on the important elements.”
From the start, Elmes knew one of the bigger challenges would be giving each different period in history the film traverses through its own detailed look and feel. “We attempted to draw from each of these very different eras accurately -- but to move from the ’20s to the ’50s, a span of vast cultural change, using the same locations and actors, was not a simple thing,” he admits.
To create a sense of moving history, Elmes also worked closely with production designer Richard Sherman and costume designer Bruce Finlayson, who researched much of 20th Century American history for the film’s design. “Richard and Bruce brought so much to the film,” says Elmes. “Richard created a distinct look for each period that not only captured some nostalgic details but really helped to give a feeling of life as it was then,” says Elmes. “Bruce’s costumes carried us right along through the years, transitioning seamlessly to show time passing.”
As for the photography, Elmes had his own view of how the past looks different from today. “I’ve always had the sense that in the past there was less light; people didn’t use lights like we use them today. So I chose to rely more on natural light, particularly in the early parts of the film. I used the windows more, manipulating the light that came into the room, and created moods with that,” he explains.
But the most demanding scenes for Elmes were the series of sex interviews, which he calls “the backbone of the film.” These were saved for the very last week of shooting, so that the filmmaking team would have plenty of time to prepare. “I knew, for Bill, that the interviews were key, and that they had to be about really capturing faces and split-second performances,” comments Elmes. “Another idea was to take these interviews, which represent the style and technique that Kinsey used for taking sexual histories, and make them be kind of `out of time’ and separate from the body of the film. This way Bill could come back to them at various points in the movie and they’d always be different. So one of the things we decided to do was shoot some of the earlier ones in black and white within what is basically a color film.”
Condon, Elmes and production designer Richard Sherman also saw the interviews as being part of a continuum of shifting colors. “The film starts with relatively little color, but as the decades pass, we add color to the walls, window dressings, furniture, costumes. At first Kinsey is mostly in dark gray suits but then suddenly you start to see skin, and he’s in shorts without a shirt, and suddenly, you’re in a garden with the most beautiful colors. This progression helps show a bit of time change, but also gives a sense of Kinsey’s growing confidence in his character and the blossoming of his work,” notes Elmes.
“ It was Richard Sherman’s idea to do this,” continues the cinematographer, “and we all worked on carrying it out. So the black and white part of the film eventually becomes color as well as we move into the 1940s and the height of Kinsey’s career.”
Adds Bill Condon: “Because Kinsey was so oppressed by the Victorian culture with which he grew up that in the scenes about his early life there should be a sense of everything pressing down on him and being dark in terms of color and lighting. As he discovers science and throws all that off, the movie lightens up and has an expanse to it. The spaces get big, the colors get brighter.”
Just as the locations change and progress, so too does time march on for the characters, necessitating complex makeup, involving not just aging the actor’s faces but altering their bodies and posture as well. Fat suits and long sessions in the makeup chair were par for the course.
“ It’s tricky, hard stuff to do,” says Laura Linney of aging on screen. “But Mindy Hall, who did my make up and Todd Kleitsch, who did my prosthetics, were remarkable. They really created a whole look. I had three different fat suits and two different sets of fake breasts. The prosthetics they applied for the aging process – a neckpiece, eye bags, etc. – were really something. There were days where it took four hours to get ready. It was very demanding, but the results were terrific and I really enjoyed it. I’ve never had the opportunity to do this before to such a degree.”
John Lithgow, who had to appear as an octogenarian in his final scenes, was amazed at his own transformation. “I certainly never thought I’d be playing Liam Neeson’s dad,” he remarks. “So makeup was very important to my performance. Luckily, makeup has come a long way since the last time I played an old man. It was particularly remarkable wearing the extraordinary contact lenses they make that, literally, fog your vision so that you actually feel old.”
Further adding to the atmosphere of KINSEY is Carter Burwell’s intimate score. Perhaps best known for his evocative compositions for the Coen Brothers’ films, Burwell previously collaborated with Bill Condon on GODS AND MONSTERS. Condon sent Burwell the script for KINSEY while the composer was still at work on another film. “I was initially struck by how unusual a script it was – and how tough I knew it would be to pull off,” he says. “It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. What also struck is me is that though I’d heard of Alfred Kinsey, I had always assumed he did his work in the 60s because that’s when we think the whole sexual liberation movement began. I was surprised to find out he was doing his work in the 1940s and that’s something that really intrigued me, because he was so outside of his period.”
The more Burwell learned about Kinsey, the more he wanted to bring one of the scientist’s primary influences to bear on the film’s music: nature. “One of the most interesting ideas in the film to me is that Kinsey really came to his studies of sexuality through his love of the natural world. There’s so much variation in nature and he saw that it extended to human beings, too. So, I wanted the music to have a sense of scale that suggests the grandeur of nature that was so inspiring to Kinsey,” Burwell explains. “At the same time, I wanted the music to be very warm and human, to defy the idea that scientists are always very dry and analytical, because Kinsey very clearly had his own human struggles.”
He continues: “I developed a theme that is first introduced while a young Kinsey is sketching animals early in the film that is continued even late into his life whenever he finds himself in the natural world.”
As Burwell composed, he realized the score he was creating contained some of the most traditional music he has yet written for film – but it all made sense. Always a composer drawn to counterpoint and counter-play, Burwell was exploring Kinsey’s own internal contradictions. “Kinsey seems so unconventional to us, but he came from a very traditional background and that was a large part of him – he was aware he was trying to do something revolutionary within a very conventional time and place,” he notes. “In discussions with Bill, we agreed that the music should reflect this, that it should have a quiet, yet strong, personal feeling that is rooted in traditional themes.”
The music may reflect a foundation of tradition, but Burwell and Condon’s collaboration was quite contemporary. Working in New York, Burwell sent Condon snippets of music electronically over the internet and the two exchanged comments long distance to hone the final score.
By the time he was ready to go into the studio to record, Burwell received the news that the production was almost entirely out of money – but he jumped at the challenge of pulling off his score anyway. He did so with a minimalist ensemble of eleven players that lent an even greater air of closeness to the score. “Actually, working with such a small group was far more interesting musically,” Burwell comments. “It was a very stimulating challenge because you have to think much harder about what each instrument is doing. The musicians did a fabulous job. In this sort of ensemble each person is doing something entirely different – and every note becomes that much more important to the whole.”
Throughout, whether it was an actor’s wrinkles, a piece of furniture, or the overall tone of the film, Condon’s focus was on building a kind of human authenticity out of Kinsey’s many layers. Summarizes Liam Neeson: “Bill was like a mini-Kinsey in a way. He clearly adored the themes of the film, and that emanated from him in every aspect of the production.”
This all hit home to Neeson and the rest of the cast and crew, when Kinsey’s granddaughter came to visit the set. “She was very moved by the whole experience,” recalls Neeson. “She went into the house we were using as a set at the time, with all the period furniture and props, and she started to cry. She said: ‘This is it.’ And obviously, we didn’t have the exact stuff from the Kinsey home but it was the feeling, the vibe of the house that came across to her. She said that this seemed to really express not only where they lived but also how they lived. And that was very gratifying because she saw that we were trying to tell the story with the kind of truthfulness for which Kinsey was always striving.”