by Dan Goldwasser
Composer James Newton Howard has been working hard in Hollywood for almost 20 years. With numerous Academy Award nominations, and countless high-profile projects under his belt, he is one of the big A-list composers in town today. He recently scored a one-two punch at the box office with his work on The Village for director M. Night Shyamalan, as well as his score to Collateral for Michael Mann. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with James during a rare break in his very busy schedule.
Let's talk about your two latest projects, The Village and Collateral. Both are doing very well at the box office, with The Village coming in at number one, and then Collateral number one the following week! That must feel great!
It was gratifying because I did both of those movies simultaneously, and I'll never do that again.
Was it just too much to do at once?
Yeah, it was horrible! I've never done that - I've intentionally never done that, and I just can't do it. It's not that I make a judgment on it, particularly having to with any kind of artistic merit; I just physically can't do that. It was just horrible for me! But I did it, and we did alright.
The two scores are pretty different from each other - did that make it easier to do both at once?
I had started work on The Village back in January, and by the time I took Collateral on, I had underestimated what it would take to finish The Village. There was just a lot of work to do in both movies, so I think the thing that helped facilitate the decision was really that they were diametrically opposite - so I didn't have to share any particular sensibilities from one to the next, and Michael Mann's demands are so completely different than M. Night Shyamalan's, and the movies were so completely different, that it made it possible for me.
This was your first time working with Michael Mann. Given the unique way in that he works with music - using multiple composers, songs, etc., how did you work with him?
You know, I think anybody who takes on a movie with Michael Mann on one level is fortunate enough to do it, and you just need to know that he's going to take that approach to the score. He's going to use whatever feels right to him, and any cue could be replaced by any other cue at any given moment. I knew that, and my eyes were wide open walking into it - but the one that did make a difference to me was that he had expressed that he wanted a much more scored approach to the big climax in the film, and so the last 17-minutes or so were much more specifically scored. At least, those moments were much more scored than typically had happened in Michael Mann movies beforehand. It doesn't mean those moments hadn't been attempted before, but Michael had never been comfortable with that kind of approach before. It was just right for this movie, and it seemed to work well. The first piece I did was starting from the beginning of the chase to the end, and I knew that that would be the lion's share of what I was going to do. Then I went back and wrote pretty much the rest of the movie, and some of those cues stayed in, and some of them didn't.
Are you overall happy with the end result?
I am happy - I think it's a really terrific film. There are things about the final mix that I certainly wasn't very happy about, and I think quite frankly that some of my cues were better than what was used. But I think Antonio Pinto did a wonderful job, and half of me wanted to knock him out of the movie, and the other half was rooting for him since I'm a fan of his work! He was holed up in a motel somewhere with a new baby, so I was secretly rooting for him.
Did you meet him at all during the mixing stage of the film?
Nope - I only met him at the premiere! He was very gracious, he came up to me and said "Hello" - it was nice!
How did violinist Hilary Hahn get involved with your score to The Village?
I had actually written a very different score for The Village for the first three month of the project. And then, as is often the case with Night, we evaluated what we had done. Some of it stayed, but I would say 2/3rds of it was reconceived - much to my pleasure! Because for me the most gratifying emotional aspect of the movie is the love story - and that's really what I wanted to focus on. Earlier on, I had thought about writing something that was "folky" and Appalachian, and somehow small and intimate. I love solo violin. I had written for it in a couple of other scores, probably most notably in Snow Falling on Cedars, but I hadn't really had a nice opportunity to do it. So I did a few demos of some things I had written for the movie, and it sounded pretty promising. Hilary is one of my all-time greatest heroes. I think she is an extraordinary violinist - I've loved her work from the beginning. The movie is a woman's story, and I thought who better to play this than Hilary Hahn! Of course, it's one of those dream things, and lo-and-behold, she was available and we made the schedules work, and she took it and did a terrific job.
The Village was the first time I've ever seen a film where the first credit on screen after it ends was "Featured Violinist". How did that come about?
Well, that's really a testament to Night. He called me up and said, "Listen, Hilary is really the musical star of this movie, - what's the appropriate credit?" I said that the best credit would be the first think you see after the movie is over, is her name. And he agreed, and said "Let's do it!" It really shows how much Night values music.
You've now scored four films for M. Night Shyamalan. How did you get involved with him, on The Sixth Sense?
Well, he had started working with another composer on that film, but they needed to replace him for some reason. I had done a few films with producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, and they called me up and told me that they had a young writer/director who made a terrific film, with a small budget, and would I like to see it? So I saw the movie, and that was that! It's kind of a perfect movie in a lot of ways for that genre. We had a long talk on the phone, and decided to do it. I think we had about six weeks to score that one.
Do you work better under pressure? Or do you prefer a lot of time to work on a score?
I like both. I personally like a long time to spend with a score. I'm not particularly happy doing real short jobs, although there's certainly an advantage to it - you second guess yourself a lot less, and sometimes you're forced to go in directions you might not otherwise go. The Village really had both - all of Night's movies had both, except The Sixth Sense. All of the others had about four or five months to work on it, and then at the end there's a huge amount of pressure because it just seems like there's more at stake after you've worked that long!
You mean, 11th hour changes, and stuff like that?
Well, I'm over that fear now! I'm pretty comfortable. You always go through an immediate knee-jerk hatred for what's happening, because you're inevitably going to have to throw out your favorite stuff. But you know, I've decided that resistance has more to do with laziness than anything else, and I think you get to a point where you work so hard that you have to get it up to do it again - and that's the hard part! Most of the time I'm as happy if not happier with what I've done the second time around.
You scored three animated films for Disney: Dinosaur, Atlantis, and Treasure Planet. Do you take a different approach to scoring animation?
I had about the same amount of time to work on them, it's just that the Disney methodology is such that you'll come on board, and meet with the filmmakers - it's very "committee". It's roundtable discussions, instead of a composer working in their ivory tower, you're just a working man among other working men. There are writers, and animators, and producers, and music supervisors, and everyone sits around and works it all out. In each case, what I did first was the main thematic material which is difficult for me because I like thematic stuff usually to evolve out of spending time with the movie.
With Dinosaur, the first thing they wanted me to do was the flying sequence. That was very hard! My first pass was mostly accepted, except for the biggest part where the pteradon takes off and we go into the main theme; they wanted something more tuneful. So I went back and did it again - and I think it was right! But you do it in sections. We did that, everyone signs off on the themes, then you go back and do 40-minutes, then that's ready, then you do another 40-minutes, and that's ready. Overall it was about 4 months.
The thing about animation is that the detail is enormous. I think it requires you to be much broader in your approach. There are iconic versions of every kind of music you've ever heard: fanfares, big band, broadly comic, broadly tragic, and all in one film - and moving constantly from moment to moment. I think that's the hard part - you need to make it feel unobtrusive and yet inextricably attached to the movie in some way. Animation is really hard, but I think I learned more about orchestral writing on those projects than anything else I had ever done, so there were a rite of passage - I think it's a rite of passage for every composer!
Your background is pop music...
Well, I was a classical musician from the time I was four until I was 19, but then professionally, I was a pop musician.
How did you make the transition to film scoring?
Back in 1985 I got offered a little movie called Head Office, which was a silly little movie. I had never done anything like it before, and I was very nervous, and it seemed scary - but I did it, and I immediately fell in love with it. While I don't think I wrote a lot of good scores early on, I guess they were good enough to get hired again, and improve with time!
How did you meet up with Lawrence Kasdan, who you collaborate with frequently?
Larry called me up in 1991 for Grand Canyon. It was down to Michael Kamen or myself, and he interviewed both of us. I think he ended up going with me for the one simple reason that Michael lived in London! I didn't have too many credits at that point, but I had just finished Prince of Tides, which I think was his favorite movie...
Well, it did get you an Oscar nomination...
It did, but I think any score in that movie would have gotten an Oscar nomination - I think it's just that kind of movie! But we just hit it off, and that was one of the best experiences I ever had, and I just wanted to do it over and over. We've become best friends since then. He's going to do another movie in the winter which I'm very excited about, and we're just going to keep on going!
There was some publicity earlier last year when it was announced that you and Hans Zimmer would collaborate on a project (which turned out to be Secret Window) - but it didn't happen... what was the deal there?
Well, Hans and I are good friends. Our studios are five blocks from each other, and he's been incredibly generous to me over the years, giving me samples and always calling me when he hears my music. He's been much more generous to me than I have been to him. When I hear a great score by him, I have not picked up the phone to call - but I think I did it once on Gladiator, because I really did love that score. But we're just buds! Composers are, by definition, somewhat solitary, and we had talked about what if I were to write a cue, and send it to him halfway finished, and I finished his cues - we sort of joked about it, and then took it seriously as a possibility. I don't know exactly how it would work, but I think it could work! Secret Window didn't work out because of scheduling - I had just finished Peter Pan, which was really a tough one, and I was just not prepared to start working again. I saw David Koepp, who is also a really good friend of mine, and was very honest with him and said, "Dave, I just don't think I can give you everything I've got right now." And we didn't do it. But Hans and I are we're still planning on doing a collaborative score - we'll find the right one!
What do you have coming up?
The only thing I have that I'm aware of is a movie called The Interpreter. Syndey Pollack is directing, with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. It's a political thriller with a love story in there. Sydney is one of my all-time favorite directors, so I'm thrilled to be doing that! He's one of my heroes!
What would your dream project be?
I think I've had them! I think the last couple years have been amazing. Peter Pan was a dream project for me. Working with Night is always a huge, wonderful musical opportunity. I suppose every composer wants to do Lawrence of Arabia - so I guess my dream project would be a big epic score.
The soundtrack to The Village is available on Hollywood Records, and Collateral is available on Hip-O Records. Both films are currently playing in theaters nationwide.
Special Thanks to Kristen Chin and Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co., and Annica Ackerman at JNH Studios.