In Disney’s Mulan, composer Harry Gregson-Williams found the opportunity to put his stamp on the journey of a classic Disney character. In his second collaboration with director Niki Caro, Gregson-Williams would pen a score and co-write an original song, “Loyal Brave True,” seeing both of these works shortlisted for the Oscars in their respective categories on February 9.
Released last September on Disney+, the live-action Mulan reimagines the animated classic of the same name, which itself was based on the Chinese tale, “The Ballad of Mulan.” The story follows Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), as she disguises herself as a man to take the place of her injured father in the Imperial Army. While training with the other soldiers, Mulan must hide her true identity or risk bringing shame upon her family.
In the following conversation, Gregson-Williams breaks down his desire to offer up a “fresh take,” in his score for Mulan, which was recorded prior to lockdowns brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, he touches on how the “moons aligned” during the process of writing “Loyal Brave True,” and his latest collaboration with Ridley Scott on upcoming thriller, The Last Duel.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Mulan?
HARRY GREGSON-WILLIAMS: I had done Niki Caro’s previous film, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and obviously, that’s a very different movie. But we got on really well and developed an ongoing collaboration.
A couple of years after that, I saw her smiling face looking out on the front of one of the trade newspapers, being announced as the director of Mulan. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped that she’d call, and sure enough she chased me down and said, “Look, you need to come on this journey with me.” So, I was thrilled to do it.
DEADLINE: What were your first points of discussion with Niki? Did she have a specific sound in mind for the film?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Not necessarily specific sounds, but Niki knows the power of music and wants to deploy it, so that’s exciting for a composer. We first spoke about it when she came back from quite a long, grueling shoot, and she had her first cut together and showed that to me. We discussed the score tracking Mulan’s emotional development throughout the movie, and how she’d like the score to be certainly orchestral, and have lots of depth and breadth.
She was interested in the possibility of sprinkling Chinese instrumentation across a score, but that I felt was coming from me. So, I think for me, it was a case of writing music as I would for any other film, making sure that I was tapping into the central character’s emotions and desires, and then as I went, finding a way of expressing that with some authentic instrumentation, given the geography of the thing.
DEADLINE: I know you admired Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original Mulan. Were there aspects of the sound for that film that you wanted to stay close to, in crafting your own?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: At no point was I trying to stay close to that sound because this wasn’t a remake of the movie. It’s very much a reimagining of the movie; it’s a live-action film and not a musical, so I never felt constrained by knowing how much I loved the Goldsmith score. The only thing I had to do was to ban any of my children watching that original movie, whilst I was trying to write the score for this movie, because I didn’t need to be reminded of it. I was fully aware of the melodies and how much I admired it, but we’re talking about Jerry Goldsmith, one of the greats.
It may be an honor, but it’s also quite tricky to be treading in the footsteps of someone as great as Jerry Goldsmith. But you know, what am I going to do? That was the challenge, and Niki never made reference to that score. We talked about the original film in some respects, but never was it a question for me to emulate Jerry’s score, which was a great relief to me. I’m not sure that I could have done. But that was what was liberating about this. It was very much a fresh take on the ballad of Mulan, so that was fortunate, as far as I was concerned.
DEADLINE: How did you decide which Chinese instruments you would integrate into your score?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Like with any culture, there’s a broad range of instruments that I could have utilized, but I can count on one hand the number of instruments that I felt could take the lead in the melody. Once I narrowed that down, the erhu, the Chinese violin, was one of those instruments, and the guzheng and the pipa. These instruments really lend themselves to picking out the melody.
Jumping back a bit, my first port of call really was to write a theme for Mulan that would work in some iteration for her as a young girl, which is where we find her at the beginning of the film, and to develop it into something bombastic, courageous and warrior-like, which is where she ends up. That was quite a challenge to begin with, and I found that I originally tapped into a compound time kind of meter; that is to say, it was in 6/8, which has got a lilt to it, a bit like a waltz. So, that’s how I originally wrote Mulan’s theme for one of the early scenes in the movie.
Before actually embarking on scoring the whole film, utilizing that theme, I had to jump to a scene much later in the movie to see if I could manhandle it into something that would work for her charging into battle, and being the warrior that she becomes. In that instance, the music had to be in 4/4. I couldn’t sustain it in a 2/4; it had to be more bombastic. So, once I’d done those two scenes, they’re two extremes of where I wanted Mulan’s theme to be, and I found that I could make that work very well. And once Niki was on board with that, I was able to fill in what came in between.
DEADLINE: Did you find it challenging to incorporate instruments that you previously had limited experience with?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Not really. I had to educate myself a little bit to begin with about range and texture and timbre, but a composer looks forward to a challenge like this. Because I might have done the Shrek series and all the movies that I’ve done, but I had never scored a movie set in ancient China, and that’s really what it’s all about. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, is that challenge. So, I was really happy to do that, and to be frank, I had enough time, which is not always the case on movies, as any composer will tell you. I had plenty of time to go down a path, and then decide that wasn’t quite the path I wanted to go down, and come back and go down another path. So, I had plenty of time to experiment with Niki and collaborate on how we would use them.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to write choral arrangements for the score? And how did you intend to use them?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: I love to include any kind of vocals, just because I have a bit of a choral background myself. As a child, I did a lot of that, and I’ve done some scores where choral music features pretty heavily, like Kingdom of Heaven.
With Mulan, there’s a certain humanity or emotion that only a choir can transmit to the audience, and the way I utilized it in this score, I was pretty choosy about my moments for it. Sometimes, a choir can add to sadness in a scene, but mostly in this score, I utilized the choir in a fairly aggressive way, almost like a Greek chorus. So, they’re kind of commenting on what’s going on, whilst fitting in harmonically with what I was trying to do.
DEADLINE: Which sequences in Mulan did you find particularly fun or challenging to tackle?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Many sequences were fun to tackle, but there were a couple of sequences that were a challenge from a technical point of view. For instance, in the scene when Mulan causes an avalanche, it was really tricky for me to coexist with the massive sound of the avalanche. So, I had to be in cahoots with the sound supervisor there, to see what frequency he was going to use, and try and keep the heck out of that frequency, so that I could bring something to the scene. So, there were many scenes that had different challenges such as that. But I can safely say that it was really pleasurable to write this score, from top to bottom, actually.
DEADLINE: How did you go about writing the original song, “Loyal Brave True”?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: The moons really aligned for us on that one because it was a meeting with a bona fide songwriter, Jamie Hartman, who I hadn’t met before. He was introduced to me, whilst I was writing the score for Mulan. He heard the Mulan theme that I was using, and he started to jump up and down and say, “Man, I think we should work that into a song.” And I said, “Well, that’d be great. How do we go about that, do you think?”
So, I showed him the movie, and what I was doing with the score, and we latched onto my theme from Mulan as the verse for the song. It just so happened that that afternoon, he was due to meet up with two collaborators who he writes songs with regularly, Rosi Golan and Billy Crabtree. So, the four of us got together that afternoon and took it from there. The Mulan theme was the right basis for the verse, and we adjusted it slightly, so it flowed nicely for the voice.
Lyrically, we took the title from the engravings on her father’s sword. Everything Mulan does, she’s doing it for her family, and for the honor of her family. But also, we wanted to suggest a little nod to the song from the original movie, “Reflection,” and actually, there’s swoops in the notes at the ends of lines one and three, which are almost rhythmically the same as the word “Reflection.”
Also, “Should I ask myself in the water, what a warrior would do?”…In the original movie, Mulan is standing over the water and sees herself in the reflection, and that’s why she sings the original song. So, we had plenty to go on, and it just so happened that Rosi Golan has a wonderful voice. She was able to put down the vocals for the demo to begin with, and that’s what I took back to my studio.
I added some strings and played it for Niki. She wasn’t expecting anything, and she was absolutely thrilled. And you know, Disney’s a big corporation, but it went through the phases and eventually got to the President of Music, Mitchell Leib, who heard it and thought, “Why don’t we get Christina Aguilera involved with this? Because it’d be great. She’s a huge part of this Disney property, Mulan, having been such a big part of the first movie. Let’s see what she says.” So, he went to her and she instantly wanted to be involved, and the next thing you know, she’d done a fantastic vocal.
DEADLINE: I know you’re also scoring Ridley Scott’s upcoming film, The Last Duel. What can you tell us about that?
GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Only that it’s a fabulous film. I think it’s the first film that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have collaborated on, writing-wise, since Good Will Hunting, that I’m aware of. But it’s a startlingly good film with incredible performances. So, I was really, really happy that Ridley asked me to score it. We’re rounding the final bend on that, shall we say. We’re not quite done.
To take a look at the music video for “Loyal Brave True” from Walt Disney Studios’ Mulan, click on the video below.