by Dan Goldwasser
John Powell has had a busy and varied 2006. He started off with the powerful 9/11 drama United 93, which was quickly followed by the animated comedy, Ice Age: The Meltdown. Then he took on the superhero genre with X-Men: The Last Stand, before finally finishing a long-term animated musical project, Happy Feet. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Powell about his work this year, as well as a few upcoming projects.
When and how did you first get involved with Happy Feet?
I first got a call four years ago to meet with director George Miller about two projects. One was Mad Max 4, and the other was Happy Feet. I spent a day with George, and he asked me to do both films. Mad Max 4 didn't happen, but Happy Feet has taken up all of his time, and certainly a lot of my time over the past nearly four years. It will be four years in January, ever since I first sat down with George to go over the movie and figure out how we were going to do all of this music. It was all suggested in the script, but not specifically in any way. There were some specific things in there, but I can't remember if any of them stayed; the ideas were there, and we had to turn it into reality. George didn't know exactly how he wanted it to go. He wanted to play "chicken and the egg", basically with it. So we'd start with an idea, I'd take it, do something, then he'd react to it, pass it back, and so on and so forth for four years.
How closely were you involved with picking the songs?
I was closely involved in the sense that, even if it wasn't my idea for a song, I had to make it work. What I tried to do was prove that I've done as much as I could with the song, to do what we were trying to do dramatically. So if it wasn't going to work, it wasn't because I hadn't tried. If the lyrics were good, but the song sounded (in it's original form) opposite to what we wanted, I always made sure that I could give it a go and turn it around into something completely different - if that's what we needed. Sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn't. We tried it with a lot of numbers.
How much work did you do that ended up getting discarded?
We discarded a lot, obviously, because you probably end up with a 5% success rate - it's such a mad endeavor! <laughs> I think I have about five CDs full of arrangements of just some of the song numbers, which ultimately only make up about 25 minutes in the film. There are lots of things we tried, where some were close, some definitely didn't work, and some ended up in the movie. Even if you realize something doesn't work, you do learn from it, and you work out why it doesn't work, and what you should be doing. Every experiment was useful in some way or another.
Once the songs were finally picked, who chose the artists to perform?
All the way along, we were trying all these songs with demo singers here in Los Angeles who have incredibly high standards. We knew that we had the opportunity to get some artists to come in and sing these numbers. It was really just a question of seeing who was available, who was interested, who would fit with whom, and who had the right voice. And obviously some things ended up in the bin as well, after we'd done it. Which is a shame, but if it didn't have a dramatic reason to be in the film, it wasn't just going to be in there.
But some of them made it to the soundtrack album....
Yeah. Pretty much everything made it to the soundtrack album, of the artists that we got to do things. There's only one or two things that aren't in the film that are on the soundtrack, but some things made it to the end title when perhaps they had been part of a scene in an earlier version of the film.
Prince wrote a song for the film, "Song of the Heart." How involved were you in what he wrote, and did you work to integrate it into your score?
Not at all. It was a very last minute thing - the score was finished, and everything else was finished. But he came up with this great song, and George listened to it and was very happy with it. Prince was shown the film to try to get him to approve a lyric change. And he discovered he liked the film, and was inspired by it - and he came up with this song almost immediately. But it was very much a last minute thing, so unfortunately I didn't get to have any collaboration with him.
Were you working on the score while picking songs, or waited for songs to be picked?
Most of the time I spent on doing the arrangements of the songs, and what would happen is that you'd realize well, okay, I need to get from one song to another, and I need to write a bridge section. So then I'd start working on the score a little bit, very early on, just as a placeholder sometimes, to say that we need to get from A to B to show that this is going to work. As you start putting whole sections together - for instance "The End" was very difficult to make work, and we had loads of ideas of how we'd do it, and we tried a lot of them, and then it ended up being a lot more simple than it had been.
But there were cases where the score had to be written earlier than normal, because just proving the value of the songs around it, and making the whole section work. You might work on one part of a scene with a song, and it works there, and then another part and the song works there, but then George would want a run at the whole thing, so you'd have to make the whole thing creamy from beginning to end. So any little bits that needed to be written, I would write at the time. Some of them stayed, some of them didn't. Some of them were sort of part of the fabric of the score, and then later on I started properly on the score, and created the major themes and ideas, and tried out a lot of things. At the same time, obviously all of those song numbers had to be fixed - since they were being animated to, then later on there would be a few sections where, for instance the Beach Boys' "Do it Again" number, we had to integrate with that.
Did you find it difficult to transition between all of them and maintain cohesiveness?
Yeah - it's certainly a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle! But I love arranging songs, and that side of the business. I like trying to get the square peg in the round hole - it's fun! So for me it was a dream come true. [Play "Boogie Wonderland" MP3 from Happy Feet]
You have a reputation in Los Angeles for working hard, with triple sessions in a day - and yet you recorded the score for Happy Feet down in Australia. How did they keep up with you?
The thing about the Australian orchestra, it was basically the Sydney Symphony, mainly, and there's not such a huge range of films being made down there that they can just drop everything and work on a film for a week. So you have to work around their schedule, somewhat. So often we couldn't do three session days, because we couldn't get them for three sessions; we could only get them for one or two perhaps. The rest of the day they might be rehearsing or playing a concert. So we would take whoever we could get, whenever we could get them. So one day I might just have the percussion section, and we'd use them while the rest of the orchestra were rehearsing Mozart. Or the brass on their own - we did a lot of brass on Sundays. It took longer to record, because we couldn't get them a solid amount of time, as we would have been able to in LA. They played very well, they really did. It's a very odd way of recording sometimes I have, and they made great sense of it, a great go on it, and they were superb players. Their timing was good, the brass were great, and we even did choir down there - a very large choir.
Yeah, I heard you had a few hundred people?
I had a couple of dates with the Sydney Philharmonia, which was 80 people, and then some days I had 18 men to do some sections, and some days I had only women, and then some days I had mixed. Then right at the end, we had a 600 piece choir for a few numbers, including the huddle and "I Wish" at the end, and a few other cues - like when the helicopter arrives - that was 600 people. [Play "I Wish" MP3 from Happy Feet]
How does one mic that?
Good question! We rented a soundstage - not a scoring stage, since we couldn't fit them in the scoring stage - one of the huge massive stages where they shot Superman Returns. It's a massive space, very empty, very echoey - it has a seven second echo. You just pile them in there, and hang some mikes above them, put some mikes in front of them, and in the back of the hall. And you record enough channels that you can make it sound whichever way you need it to sound, bigger or smaller, depending on how it's going to fit in. But we couldn't get 600-pairs of headphones, and obviously we were working to playback. So the problem was, we couldn't playback over speakers and record everybody since we wouldn't have separation, so the conductor had headphones, and he would just conduct and try to keep them in time, and we would cut it up a little bit when they were out of time. It was just a little technical! [Play "The Story of Mumble Happyfeet" MP3 from Happy Feet]
There are only six minutes of score on the soundtrack album - are there plans for a score release?
There's going to be a score album, Atlantic Records is doing it will be released in December.
Earlier this summer you worked on X-Men: The Last Stand. How did you get involved with that project?
I just got a call from Brett Ratner, who was a big fan of The Bourne Identity, and said that he wanted me to do the film. I was a bit puzzled since I didn't think that kind of score would fit the film, but he thought i could do it, and do a great job. But there was a bit of a fight for it, since I was on Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Fox was worried that I wouldn't have enough time on X-Men, because I was finishing off Ice Age in a period of time when I should have been starting X-Men. But it all got resolved, and we all made sure that I got Ice Age done early enough, and I got enough time on X-Men, and we just started and i had great fun with him. He's a wonderful man, and crazy, with a big heart, and just wanted me to "go for it" - so I did!
It seemed at times that there were some nods to the previous two scores. Was that deliberate, or am I hearing it because I want to hear it?
Oh, it was very intentional. I don't think you can walk into the third of a series like this where the first two films are so good, and you can just throw everything away. It's all original material for this one, but it all had to be in the same family, and the same language. I obviously wrote all these new themes, but one of them - the main X-Men theme, is homage to the past two themes that we used in the same way. It all uses the same kind of intervals, and same language. It's definitely influenced, in the same way that if you listen to the main theme from the second theme, I always felt that was what happened between the first two - that John Ottman was taking on board what happened in the first one and making it his own, and that's what I should do with this one. [Play "Bathroom Titles" MP3 from X-Men: The Last Stand]
There were some last minute changes to the score in post production, and what is on the soundtrack album is a little different than the film; mainly, the choir was reduced. What happened?
Well, the choir was all singing in Latin, and when we ran the whole film together, there were certain elements of the choir that were just a bit over the top - it was making it a bit fraught with music. There's a lot of music already, so we just went through and we trimmed a few things out, trimmed a few bits of choir out, trimmed a few parts of cues out, and brought some levels down, and really just tried to sort of bed it a little bit more into the story - it was poking out a bit. You don't want that as a viewer - you want the whole thing to just flow over you. You don't want to be thinking, "Well I'm enjoying this film, but why have I got so many women singing at me? Why a choir of angels?"
How did you come up with the Latin lyrics?
They are the Requiem Mass, so it was just various lines that were appropriate to the scenes. I just dug through a transcription of the mass - I think the one I used was used in the "War Requiem" by Benjamin Britten, and just looked for appropriate lines, in particular there's a lot of stuff with Jean Gray - there's a lot of appropriate Latin. Day of Judgement, that kind of stuff. [Play "Phoenix Rises" MP3 from X-Men: The Last Stand]
Your theme for the Phoneix has a Middle-Eastern styled theme. How did you come up with that ethnic style approach?
Well, I was actually just trying to write a love theme! You say it's ethic, and I've said this before, but you have to understand that to me, everything other than Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten is "ethnic music". John Williams sounds really American to me. Beethoven sounds really German to me. Sibelius sounds Finnish. It's all ethnic music! <laughs> All music is ethnic to me - I can't see any differentiation at all, so I've listened to every kind of music in the world, so I now don't know what "ethnic music" is. For me, it didn't strike me as being in any way ethnic whatsoever - but I think it's because it used a scale that people seem to think is linked with certain parts of the world. And obviously certain parts of the world use scales in a different way than other parts of the world. I'm always puzzled because I worked on a film, Endurance, with Ethiopian music in it, and it used exactly the same scales as they do in Scotland, which they do in China! So you know, it's like - all of these scales depend on where you come from, and how you use them, I suppose. But there's no intention to be ethnic at all, it was just an intention to be expressive - and I guess it turned out I was using that particular scale! <laughs> [Play "End Title" MP3 from X-Men: The Last Stand]
You worked with Paul Greengrass before on The Bourne Supremacy, and then worked with him on United 93. How did you even approach writing it, with such a sensitive subject matter that already had a lot of emotion attached to it already?
I think what we realized we had to do was just leave room for people. If I was writing something like X-Men 3 for that film, you'd basically be sick of it within a few minutes - the composer's emotion would be being rammed down your throat. And that's not how audiences feel at the moment with film music - they prefer not to be spoon fed, and not to be pushed. So the idea was to make a score that resonated to what the viewer was feeling at the time, and in this particular case, so much of it was on the screen - and even before the film, was just in the ether of the knowledge you have of the story and of what happened.... that was all so potent that it was important that the music doesn't do so much. That's why I was doubtful that a CD release would make any sense whatsoever. Because it's purely about the moments of the movie being supported a little, just to hold your hand and say, "yes this is a film, we are adding a little music here just to keep things moving along". And then at the end, you sort of have a bit of music which can be described more as "prayers" I suppose, and that would be where we were really heading for, musically. So the rest of it was just very supportive of an audience that was having a difficult experience with the film. It's a tough film to get through. [Play "Second Plane Crash" MP3 from United 93]
And the thing about that is, all rules, and everything you know about filmmaking, just doesn't work anymore, because you're not pushing a story along in a normal way, because everyone knows this story better than you. So you're either playing with people's perceptions, or you're just trying to support perhaps, in Paul's case, a chronicle or a history of what happened - so we can see it with an eye that says "perhaps this is what happened on board" and all these people are the same as us, we're all one species and we're all having the same problem at the moment of trying to agree on one ideology, which of course we never will be able to do. But ultimately, everybody is struck with the same sort of feeling of helplessness, and at the moment, I think, that was the resonance for Paul - at that moment, we don't seem to have any choices, other than the two crappy choices they had: which were they would either bring down the plane, or sit back and wait. And it's a disaster for everyone on board to take either of those choices, unfortunately, and it's the same for us actually. It is a metaphor for the situation I think everybody is in the west at the moment.
Your son provided vocals for the score. How did you come up with the idea to use him, and was it hard to get him to perform what you had in mind?
Well, he's always liked to come into the studios and liked to put on headphones and sing into a microphone with reverb - who doesn't? He was five at the time, and he came in and I asked him if he would sing something for me. So I would sing him the tune, and he wouldn't sing it back to me - see, that's the thing. So I couldn't actually get him to sing what I wanted him to sing! So I took the recordings, and I combed through them and looked for things, and took these little phrases, and I placed them. And then what I did was, I made a kind of "round" out of them. So he would sing one phrase, and then one part of the orchestra would start to play over and over, and then another phrase would come up, and the next part of the orchestra would come in, following him. And I realized I could build up this "round", the idea that the child speaks, and everyone should listen, perhaps.
Until the last minute, I literally recorded it, and I called up Paul and told him, "Have a listen to this. It either works, or it's the worst idea I've ever had in my life. I don't know which - it might be the most awful manipulative piece of rubbish that has ever existed in the history of filmmaking, or it will do what we need" And I wasn't sure at all! Fortunately Paul liked it, and then when I had some time away from it, I came back and watched the film with it, and I realized that it was working the right way, the way I'd hoped. So I was very indecisive about it! [Play "Dedication" MP3 from United 93]
This year you've done Ice Age: The Meltdown and Happy Feet, and you have a long history of working on animated films. Do you feel that you might be a tad pigeonholed as an animation composer, even though you've done so many other things?
I think I have had a rather diverse year. But honestly I don't care if I get pigeonholed. I love animation so much, I really always have, as long as it's good animation. I've always had a penchant for it. I love the visual art of it - I love the acting in animation films, which is often so much better than in live action films. I'm always happy to do these great movies - I'm very lucky in the ones I've done. I haven't sort of been "ignoring" any other kind of genre, I just do enjoy it - I really do! I'm just starting another one, Horton Hears a Who. I have to write some of the music in advance, because Seuss's world has often got musical instruments in it, people walking around with strange musical instruments. And in this particular case, in the climax of the movie, everyone in Whoville is trying to make themselves be heard by playing, shouting, singing, musical instruments - so we can't make that part of the film until we've written the music! [Play "Mammoths" MP3 from Ice Age: The Meltdown]
So are you coming up with new sounds for these Seussian instruments?
Yeah, I'm having a go at seeing what I can go crazy with. In fact, I was just recording some cactuses today...
How do you do that?
It's a John Cage thing. You stick some contact mikes on them and...
Do you wear gloves?
Well, you just shout "ow" a lot! <laughs> You pick at their spines, and they're quite resonant, so you get these very interesting sounds. It's dangerous, but it's what I'm doing! I don't know if it's musical or not, but we'll see.
You're also going to be reuniting with Paul Greengrass on The Bourne Ultimatum....
Yeah, we'll be doing that in May I think - it comes out in the summer. I like Paul so much, because as a man he's a very brave soul. Big heart, but very brave - he's one of these guys who, as a documentary filmmaker earlier in life would walk into war zones and situations that were very tough, and demanding of people as humans to exist and survive in, let alone making a film. I like being around Paul, I find it's good for me to hang out with somebody that kind of solid.
Where might it evolve musically?
I have no idea until I see a script at the very least, which I haven't yet! I've been brought on to do it, but I won't really get into it just yet. I don't know, it will be interesting to see! I don't even know the story at the moment, but I know it picks up in New York where the second film left off, but we'll see. The music will basically be designed to hopefully take us tot the same places the film does! [Play "To the Roof" MP3 from The Bourne Supremacy]
Do you have a dream project?
I think Happy Feet was a dream project, in a way. I've always loved George's films - I mean, that's an understatement. I've so admired him as a filmmaker, every film he's made. He's one of those filmmakers that because he's Australian and doesn't have as high a profile as people like Steven Spielberg, I would just come to his films not knowing it was him, and be bowled over by them every time, and think "that's an incredible film". And then you look back and say "hang on, all these films I really, really like, more than normal, and they're all the same guy! There's something going on here!" Then when I actually worked with George, I realized why the films turn out the way they do. So it really was a dream project.
If Mad Max 4 goes forward, would you do it?
I hope so! I mean, they hired me for it before, I hope they'd hire me again. I think George enjoyed doing the music for Happy Feet, the scoring and everything we did together. It's an amazing script - I saw the script four years ago, and it's quite an extraordinary script!
Happy Feet will open in theaters on November 17. The soundtrack is available now from Atlantic Records, with a score album released December 19th.
Special thanks to Tom Kidd and Ray Costa at Costa Communications