David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor.
This year’s bevy of awards contender films is not only uncharacteristically large but also varied, particularly in how they were scored. The lack of similarity is apparent in everything from genre to instrumentation and even transcends musical matters, touching on the very core of the process. Specifically, when the composer is handpicked to buttress feelings and emotions primarily expressed in visual terms, what is his or working relationship with the director? Several prominent composers spoke about that intimate union, which in some cases was a new collaboration and in others a welcome reteaming.
Alexandre Desplat first worked with Stephen Frears on The Queen in 2006 and gratefully accepted the director’s offer to work on this year’s Philomena, a bittersweet road movie starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. “The story is intimate and deeply moving, and Stephen thought I could emphasize that,” Desplat says. “The story is such that it’s difficult not to be in tears: This little woman who seems to be lost but is actually ahead of everyone. It was so appealing to me. I came out with the main theme rather quickly.”
Desplat, who used a chamber-sized orchestra of about 50 pieces, found his inspiration in one of the film’s flashbacks. “The original sin, so to speak, is the scene at the fair at the beginning,” he says. “From this, everything else follows, so I needed something sad but also tender. I wanted to use the orchestra to re-create the sound of a fairground organ playing a waltz.”
The composer also was tantalized by the film’s subtext—its not-so-gentle prods at institutional dysfunction. “Stephen wanted to capture something deeply grounded in social drama but also balance that by wit,” Desplat says. “It’s rare to have both wit and social content, but Stephen is the master of that. And the music should bring that out.”
One might not expect to see John Williams’ name attached to The Book Thief, a World War II drama based on a novel meant primarily for teenage audiences, but the material and its relatively unknown director, Brian Percival, appealed to the veteran composer. “The surrounding events concern an indescribably colossal tragedy,” Williams says. “But the soundtrack of the film needs to be measured and controlled, so that the emotions are not presented in any kind of operatic dimension. You wouldn’t want to overdramatize a piece like this.”
Instead, Williams concentrated on the small-scale drama of a young girl discovering the magic of books during a time of terror. “Brian Percival said he wanted to keep this an intimate film,” Williams says, “but I said it’s a big film in that it’s got a big heart. The voice of providence illuminates the film. And the idea that words can make a life is wonderful. I tried to create a sense of magic and magnetism in the books themselves. So when the main character goes into the library, it’s a magical place. That music appears in the main title and the library scenes.”
Hans Zimmer worked on two major films this year that could hardly be more different: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Ron Howard’s Rush. The composer and McQueen had never worked together but had been trying to for some time. “The great thing about Steve is that he’s incredibly collaborative and collegial and loves ideas,” Zimmer says. “He loves the conversation. We spent more time talking to each other than I spent writing notes. It’s sort of my process. This film is a period piece, but I didn’t have to stay in period. The story echoes in our time right now, and I thought the music could create this bridge between now and then. Plus, it’s nice to work on a film that has no CGI and just has extraordinary acting and cinematography, with directors and actors who are courageous enough to hold a shot.”
Rush marks Zimmer’s sixth project with Howard and what felt like a return to his rock-’n’-roll roots. “For the longest time, I was ignoring the races,” Zimmer says of the rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda that is depicted in the film. “I thought the music of the races should be the sounds of the cars. In this case, the sound of the cars needed to be larger than any orchestra you could ever assemble. So the only thing to do was not assemble one. I wasn’t trying to do a period score, but I wanted to embrace that spirit of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1970s. If it got a little dangerous and we were just on the edge of playability, well, that was a good thing.”
Labor Day stood out musically for Rolfe Kent, who has written music for all but one of Jason Reitman’s films. “From the outset, we knew it was going to be a very different project,” Kent says. “Jason—way before he shot a frame—was talking about the kind of music he wanted to have. So we knew it was going to be an experiment. And I had to reinvent how I’d work.”
The new approach was engendered by Reitman’s interest in layering sound—a product, according to Kent, of the director’s passion for deejaying. “The first sound you hear is a musical version of crickets,” Kent says. “They kind of sound like a choir. We have samplers, and on top of that we have lot of guitars, ukuleles, charango. Jason was asking that the music not give away the emotion, but rather draw you in. He wanted to leave the audience to make up its mind, but also to focus them on what’s going on. That’s the job of the music in many places in the film. But I had to be careful I wasn’t spelling out more than I should or becoming emotional when I shouldn’t. And that’s a very tricky thing.”
For Steven Price, working on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity came as a surprise. “I was to come on for two weeks to look at the music question,” the composer says. “Alfonso wanted to be true to the idea of there being no sound in space. Even though this was an action film, the music wasn’t going to be conventional. I started trying things in my studio, and then we started talking, and after a few weeks of that he offered me the job.”
Both director and composer wanted to avoid percussion, but the score would prove unusual for other reasons. “The original challenge was that we didn’t want anything to be specifically electronic or organic. It had to be fused,” he says. “A lot of the instruments in the film are organic—voice, plucked strings—but they go through various processes. They’re cut around or reversed. There’s an inherent tension in that. You’re not allowing something to finish. And there are a lot of layers. I made this instrument that’s like a radio, which might carry the melody for a couple bars before disappearing. I was trying to make it an aural 3-D experience.”
This year’s toughest musical assignment surely belonged to Thomas Newman, who took on the job of scoring Saving Mr. Banks, a film that already contained portions of one of the most beloved scores of all time, that of Mary Poppins, by the Sherman Brothers. In fact, part of the appeal for Newman was the presence of the older score, which he knew from childhood. It did, however, take assurances from director John Lee Hancock to secure Newman’s services. “I asked John if it was going to be just an adaption score, and he assured me that it wasn’t, that there was all this backstory,” Newman says. That backstory was the early life of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, who was reared in Australia.
“The Australia material was what I was working with the most,” Newman says. “You had to turn on a dime to make the transition back to the ‘present,’ when Travers and the Sherman brothers are working on the script for Mary Poppins. And that was fun, but also musically challenging.” Newman used a string orchestra with some woodwinds and brass for added color. “It’s an intimate story,” he says, “and I thought strings would warm things up. Occasionally, I add an icy piano or hammered instruments like dulcimers for drive, but only if they’re appropriate to the time period.”