by Dan Goldwasser
Award-winning composer Harry Gregson-Williams might have contributed to such hard-hitting action films such as Armageddon and The Rock, but it's with smaller more intimate films like Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Magic of Marciano that he feels more at home. This year, he worked on the hit films Shrek and Spy Kids, and recently scored a solo effort with the Cold War thriller Spy Game. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Harry about his career and his background at his studio at Media Ventures.
Let's get right to it. People are always comparing scores coming from Media Ventures, and tend to have very strong feelings about them. What is your take on the whole "branding" issue, and what makes you stand out on your own?
It's an interesting phenomenon that undoubtedly there is a "Media Ventures" brand. But the reality is that for my own part, I purposefully try to turn away from any direction that might pull me closer to being compared to Hans Zimmer. A lot of the action films that he's done have done very well and he's kind of made a genre out of it. But they're the very scores I'm trying to avoid doing. I did get my start with The Rock, Armageddon, and Enemy of the State, but I quickly retraced my steps and backed up. It isn't my cup of tea, seriously - it isn't me. If you know me, that kind of machismo thundering anthemic orchestral thing with a stack of drums behind it isn't what turns me on at all. I've been down that path. I've had opportunities to work on some of Hans's movies in the last two or three years, and I haven't - even when it might have suited me to do so. I didn't because the other option is to try an eek out a tiny bit of space that is mine.
The connections I've had with animation is much more me, really. Before I shed a skin like a snake about six years ago and came here with just some hand luggage, I was teaching music to children in Alexandria, Egypt and in Kenya. And the way that music relates to children is much closer to my heart than Bruce Willis saving the Earth - which I never could believe and I still find I can't. So I think that when writing music for a film like Armageddon or something, I wouldn't be at all surprised if you could see through my music immediately, and say "Oh, not a bad imitation but he really doesn't believe it". So, I've managed to find some really beautiful projects that have a lot of emotion in them.
A movie that sadly you can't have seen - and I don't know if you ever will - is called The Magic of Marciano directed by the very talented director Tony Barbieri, whose previous film One did well at Sundance. It's probably my favorite film I've worked on - and Barbieri just called me up to ask me to read the script for his next film. So that's really where I'm at.
In a sense, I had a false start, because almost as soon as I touched down in LAX, I was working alongside Hans on some of the biggest films going at the time, dealing with a huge learning curve, and I'm not sure I'd be sitting here if that hadn't happened to me. But about 14 months after I landed here, I begged to be "released", as it were. Hans was like, "Okay - good luck!" And the first thing I did was start at the very bottom again with The Whole Wide World, a little movie with Renée Zellweger. It was a great movie, it was very romantic, and I kind of fell for this girl on screen - and Danny Ireland the director hooked me up with her. So we went out for a while, but then she got Jerry Maguire and changed her phone number! <laughs> Which is all good, because shortly thereafter I met my wife. But I have a very warm feeling about The Whole Wide World, and now I've just finished Ireland's next movie, Passionada.
You recently provided the score to Spy Game - what was your experience like on that film?
When I first saw the rough cut of the film, I was so confused by it I hardly dared show (director) Tony Scott how baffled I was because I didn't want him to think I was completely dumb! But it turned out when we tested the film that everyone seemed to have a problem with it. So he very smartly and intelligently honed it down. The Catherine McCormack character was much more essential to the story, but didn't really pay off. He very cleverly sidelined her - she's the reason for the entire film, so she has to be there, but by having her in there a lot more it was less believable. So he pushed her to one side, but left her in enough so that the audience would believe that Brad Pitt would like her enough to do what he did.
I feel very fortunate to have done the film, but I still worry a lot about it. Tony is certainly one of a kind. I didn't really feel the force of it on Enemy of the State, since there were two of us composing, and we came in pretty late. I think I was a pretty poor substitute for "the Z", and I think Tony felt a bit let down. And since that time, Hans has been with Tony's brother, Ridley. So I was fortunate on Spy Game - I don't think the producers were that keen on me at first, but Tony went out on a limb for me - I didn't do a demo or anything.
Sitting at the premiere the other night I found it almost unbearable because there's so much music, and in your face. I knew it was going to be that way - I was at the dub so none of it surprised me. About 2/3 of the way through the film, there's a very long music cue of about 8-minutes or so that seemed to work and it was fine, and then it cuts back to the interior of the CIA and it was quiet - and I felt a lot of relief. Then boom - it just started back up again! If anyone else feels that way about the movie, I would completely agree with them. I have to shoulder some of that blame myself, I did spot the movie with Tony - but he's so very clear about the amount of music. To be honest, his visuals do lend themselves to a lot of underscore. Frequently the old equation that "if a movie needs a lot of music, it's probably lacking somewhere" is a truism - but I didn't feel that on Spy Game. It's just that there were few places where music wouldn't have helped. I think I've learned a lot from that. If we did it all again, I would probably try to be more assertive - and take a "less is more" approach. But it was very liberating in another way - Tony is great at encouraging people to go outside of an obvious thought, and give it a whirl. When I would play music back to him for review, he would listen carefully, and then he would always start his response with, "That's brilliant! Brilliant man! Fantastic! You're doing great stuff! But..." and then there would be comments. I'm sure I've worked with a lot of people who forget that bit, and dive in to the "But..." - but he always made me feel that even if it wasn't quite what he envisioned, it was appreciated. It was a good feeling. He was very supportive when inevitably a moment would come about 2/3 of the way through scoring a big film like this which has a lot of music and a lot of conceptualizing had already been done and agreed upon - where the producers are starting to wonder if it's the right thing.
You mentioned that you taught in Alexandria, and Africa - did your experience there help on Spy Game, with the Middle Eastern flavor?
It would be neat and romantic of me to say "yes". I did learn Arabic, because the children I was teaching didn't speak English, and I became very accustomed to the calls to prayer and the sound of the streets of a place like Alexandria. The thing that made a huge difference to the music that I composed for the Beirut sequences was finding, quite by chance, a vocalist who has become a good friend, and had a complete abandon about the way he sang. He had never done films or studio recordings, and because of that he had no fright or fear of being completely on the wrong planet. I gave him some guidelines, and I had some recordings which were made on location when the film was being shot of some phrases and sounds that I was interested in recreating. I had written a very straightforward and classical western strings accompaniment, and it was absolutely amazing when he came in and sang.
Are you happy with the way the score album came out?
Umm... no. <laughs> I'll be honest with you, it was weeks, maybe months before I finished the score when I had to come up with the track titles and the rough length of the thing - and I'll never provide a score CD of that length again. It just ran away from me. There was a time when we were mixing and I was much more concerned about mixing the music and how it was going to work for the film, and how people are reacting to it - and at the same time I was being politely prodded by Decca who were saying that they needed the music if this thing was going to be released. So I tossed the music over to another mixing engineer - not the guy who mixed the score on the film. I'm not blaming him for it, I did make some suggestions about how he could cut things together - but it ended up being too long.
Unless you really are sitting on the score of all bloody scores, I think 70 minutes is more than plenty. It just went right over my head on this occasion - I was much more concerned at the time about the mix for the film. Getting the CD done always seems to land on top of the film mix, and the priority has to be the film.
You also scored the hit of the summer, Shrek. It was your third collaboration with John Powell. What is your thought on collaborative efforts?
I love it. Look at my credits! My agent probably hates me for it, but often people could look at it and think "he's only half a composer" but I don't look at it that way, obviously. If you have any insight into this game, you'll see that composing for films - especially the way I do it - is an extremely lonely task. It's a blast working with other people. I think you have to be a certain sort of person, and leave your ego at the door, hopefully, and be open minded about accepting someone else's theme into your world and wrestling with it like you might wrestle with your own. John and I didn't choose each other - we're not partners or anything, in fact we rarely have a drink! We're two very different people, and I think that particular journey is over now, for both of us. After Chicken Run, we both said, "Well, great - I think that's it!" Then of course DreamWorks came to us with Shrek, and before we'd seen it or read it or anything about it, we both had the same reaction - we called each other up, and said "Why don't you do it, and I'll find something else to do". So the next week, we went to a rough screening of the film, and afterwards asked "So John, did you find anything else to do?" And he was like, "Oh, shut up - let's just do it!" So we did! Next year I'll be doing another DreamWorks animated film, Sinbad.
It's been fun - it's not like we haven't been doing anything else in between. Chicken Run and Shrek came a bit too close together for comfort, and the memories of the whole process were still lingering, but we just got down to it. I'm really grateful for it - I suppose we have to go off and prove to whoever gives a shit that we can do our own scores separately as well, but to be honest it's been great fun. We're not really very similar, and we didn't put ourselves forward as a team. John's great, and is a very good composer who approaches it all completely differently than me.
So how would you come up with the themes?
Well, usually in my room here, we would talk about it, wrestle with it, screw around on my piano, and then split up to work. Say we had a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg the following week - we'd each try to write themes. Then the night before the meeting we would come together, play each other things, and talk about what were the good points of our versions, and then the next day would present them as a team. To be honest, with Jeffrey and the whole DreamWorks team, one's main intention is for them to buy into something. Inevitably, they choose a theme, and one of us has written it. We don't go around broadcasting things like that, but we don't keep it a secret either. There are some interesting stories to be told about who wrote such and such a theme, and who used that theme in a certain sequence.
What frequently happens is one of us takes the other ones' theme and molds it, rams it up against the wall and bangs it over the head to make something very surprising to the other person- and that's really cool. It's very different than how it was with Trevor Rabin and me. For those films (Armageddon, Enemy of the State), we just divided it up and went our separate ways and met up at the finishing line - and you can probably hear that in the final result.
For instance in Shrek, I wrote the main "Fairy Tale" theme, but my favorite cue in the movie is "Ride of the Dragon "- John's cue, using my theme. And similarly the opening titles of Chicken Run, which I thought were brilliantly done - not my cue. My theme, but John wrestled with that cue for months. And it happens the other way around as well.
What was the extent of your involvement in the other summer hit, Spy Kids?
Spy Kids was a project that I spent only four or five weeks on and, sadly, had to jettison. I got a fright at the ER here in Santa Monica where I had gone because of some nasty chest pains - the doctors kept me at the hospital for a week or so and I had to tell Robert Rodriguez that he'd have to go elsewhere as I couldn't continue. He used the one theme I had written by the (The Family Theme) in the final film, so that was good.
You also had an album come out this fall called "So Many Worlds", as Rambient. What can you tell me about this project?
About 3 years ago, through my wife, I hooked up with Perry Farrell of Jane's Addicition, and I produced four tracks of their album, "Kettle Whistle", and I guess through that he must have told his ex-guitarist from Porno for Pyros, Peter DiStefano, all about me. Peter came to see me one day, and asked if I wanted to jam in the evenings. So we did that for a while, and had a lot of fun. We got some songs together, and thought it would be fun to get a record together. So we went and found a small record company called 5.1 Entertainment, and at that point they were in the business of releasing DVDs of old catalog album remixed in surround. They wanted us to be the first people to make a DVD-Audio with music written specifically for surround sound and they left us to it! We recorded it over a few years, between my film projects. We got Peter Murphy from Bauhaus to sing on some tracks, as well as the very talented Miho Hatori, Flea, and a few others. It was released on DVD and CD, and probably sold three copies.
Also this year you provided music for a computer game: Metal Gear Solid 2.
It was my first and only computer game. It was great fun! Konami approached me out of the blue, and in such a manner that... well, flattery will get you everywhere! They sent me a CD-R of 18 tracks, all of it music of mine from Armageddon and Enemy of the State and stuff like that. And my music from Armageddon hasn't been released, thankfully, and my contribution to Enemy of the State is undocumented - it doesn't say who wrote what tracks. However, on this CD-R everything was mine. They said that they were making a big video game, and they wanted it to sound like a big Hollywood action movie, and my stuff was the sound they were looking for. After some more investigation, it turned out that I wasn't going to be scoring to picture - I was just given some timings and occasional "marks" to hit. You know - write "sneaky" for 1.5 minutes. Stuff like that. So it was great freedom! I've never played the game - I think the last computer game I played was "pong"!
What are you on now?
Well, I'm finishing work on Dan Ireland's latest film, Passionada. It takes place in South Bedford, MA, which is the largest Portuguese community in America. It's a little fishing village, and of course what made it attractive to me is that the music can reflect that. The music of Portugal is "fado". It's very acoustic guitar based, and very beautiful. I also have a few things brewing, but I'm reluctant to commit to anything at the moment - I don't know what I feel like I want to do. I know what I shouldn't do, and that's another Spy Game!
What would your dream project be?
A film that I certainly would love to have done is White Oleander, starring Renée Zellweger and Michelle Pfieffer, and which is a gut wrenching story about a child who is passed around to different adoptive families. I want movies with emotion. It doesn't have to be gut wrenchingly sad, but it has to be a film that moves you in some way. I remember thinking on Armageddon, I was working on this bloody cue I was doing with Bruce Willis, with a tear in his eye standing on some fucking meteorite and he was saving the world. I thought, this is more than just Hollywood - this is ludicrous! I could underpin this with very emotional music... ah.. sorry Jerry! The antithesis of that. That would be my dream project!
Shrek is available on Varese Sarabande Records, Rambient: "So Many Worlds" is available on the Immergent label, and Spy Game is available on Decca Records.
Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co. for arranging the interview. Images © Dreamworks Pictures and Universal Studios.