HARRY GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Chronicles of a Film Scorer

“Composing for film is a collaborative process,” he said. “It needs to be, and if one doesn’t see that one’s not going to get very far.” It’s something Harry Gregson-Williams has seen, and it’s served him well. In just over a decade he’s been employed as the scorer for an abundance of fine films, and his capacity for collaboration has resulted in directors returning to him time and time again, as did Nicolas Roeg, Tony Scott and most recently, Andrew Adamson, who enlisted him to score a triumvirate of movies: Shrek, Shrek II and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He’s also scored Kingdom of Heaven, Domino, The Rock, Armageddon, Chicken Run, Spy Game, Enemy of the State and many others.“Composing for film is a collaborative process,” he said. “It needs to be, and if one doesn’t see that one’s not going to get very far.” It’s something Harry Gregson-Williams has seen, and it’s served him well. In just over a decade he’s been employed as the scorer for an abundance of fine films, and his capacity for collaboration has resulted in directors returning to him time and time again, as did Nicolas Roeg, Tony Scott and most recently, Andrew Adamson, who enlisted him to score a triumvirate of movies: Shrek, Shrek II and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He’s also scored Kingdom of Heaven, Domino, The Rock, Armageddon, Chicken Run, Spy Game, Enemy of the State and many others.

Williams started out in the business as an apprentice for the composer Hans Zimmer, who introduced him to the world of film music, and he started scoring movies on his own soon thereafter. He established himself as not only a man who could get the job done, but he could get it done with a flair and a splendor ideally suited to each project he took on. He’s known to research music from around the world and augment the sonic scope of scores by blending the orchestra with a diversity of exotic instruments; in Narnia, for example, he combined the orchestra with a Finnish kantele, a Middle-Eastern duduk, and traditional Native American drums.

Harry now lives with his family to Los Angeles and owns a recording studio in the heart of Venice Beach, where he took the time, in the midst of a whirlwind of perpetual activity, to talk to us about his work in movies.

What did you learn from your time with Zimmer?

I remember Hans saying to me, very early on, “There’s a lot more to being a film composer than composing.” I could liken it to a director being a football coach, trying to put together a team. It doesn’t matter how great a throw someone might have, if you haven’t gotten any buzz with the guy, if there’s no charisma there, if there’s no possibility of confrontation in a positive way, then you’d sooner probably look for somebody else. Filmmaking is a collaborative process; Hans showed me early on that it was smart to make music approachable in terms of having a director coming into one’s studio. Not writing the music and saying, “Look, I’ll see you on the scoring stage when we put it to orchestra, and it’ll be great,” not having to have them make that leap of faith, but to allow them into the process. I’ll always remember Jim Brooks on As Good As It Gets curling up fast asleep in the back of Hans’ studio at two in the morning. I said to Hans, “What’s going on?” And he said, “The guy is just trying to make a film. He’s in the last throes of the film. He wants to be here and see what I’m doing.” It was enlightening. There was so much more to this process than simply writing the music.

The Narnia score contains a mixture of astonishment and awe, and paints a picture of a magical world

It was a fascinating experience, and very collaborative. Andrew [Adamson] is a very musical guy, himself. The score has 120 minutes of music, which is an enormous amount. I had already spent six months on the score for Kingdom of Heaven with Ridley Scott. When I came to that film, it was more than three hours long. I must have scored three hours of music. And we ended up with a movie that wasn’t much longer than 2 hours, but there was probably another 120 minutes of music that was cut.

What kind of challenge did scoring Narnia present?

A wonderful challenge. With any score, when you start out, it?s nerve-wracking. One wonders if one is going to make it. But you just have to have faith. And that’s why I’m working with someone like Andrew Adamson. We’ve already been through two movies together before. We have an understanding and a language, and he’ll give me a certain space to do what I’ve got to do, and hopefully guide me. I do recall that when I came up with a thematic approach for the White Witch [Tilda Swinton], I felt that I had found exactly the right tone, and was excited that he was coming to my studio to hear what I had done. Wrong. [Laughs] He thought that I had made it too dark. So, of course, one has to put one’s disappointment to one side, and move on. But the great thing about Andrew, and I think with any good director, is that he didn’t just leave me dangling there. He didn’t just say, “This isn’t working, I’ll be back tomorrow. Think of something better.” He always found something positive to say. He said,”Look, I like the way that this piece is starting, I just feel that you’re painting her a little too black too early on in the movie.” He guided me. You know, there’s a lot of trust involved. He’s the director, he’s the boss. But rather than just depending on him because he’s the boss, I depend on him because I know his musical tastes, and I trust him.

Writing a theme for the White Witch must have been tricky, as her character evolves from that first scene in which she’s quite sweet.

Yes. She is actually quite seductive and kind to Edmund the first time she meets him. So [Andrew] encouraged me to write something that was more mysterious and multi-layered for that scene than out and out villain music.

Do you have the opportunity to see a film from beginning to end before you score it?

No. My work started on Narnia five months before it was finished. There’s a lot of the picture that was not finalized by then. And Andrew is worried not just about the music, but about his cut. By no means did we have a final cut when I started working on the movie. So I think he was discovering things about his movie, and I was discovering things about the music for his movie, and that’s why it’s important to keep the communication channels open.

With Kingdom of Heaven, from when I started on that movie, there were whole story lines, and whole characters that didn’t appear in the final cut. I was writing music for scenes, and a week would go by, and Ridley’s cutting room would send over the most current cut of the movie, and some of the music that I already had written did not quite work anymore, not just because two frames had been cut out, but whole scenes would be gone. Or perhaps they had moved. So there’s absolutely no point in getting confrontational about this stuff; no one’s trying to trip you up. It is what it is. It is just the process. So I think the more open you are about these things, the better. We’re all trying to find the movie at that point. And then there does come the point when the director has to have the final cut, and then really that’s the home stretch for the composer. So you don’t get to chronologically write the score for a movie, any more than a director will chronologically shoot a movie. And quite possibly, the heart of the movie is the place to start. With Narnia, for me, the essence of the movie was probably about fifteen minutes into it, when Lucy first steps through the wardrobe into Narnia, and that was the scene I started with.

With Narnia, Adamson told you he wanted “ethnic flavors flying around,” but, of course, he didn’t specify which ethnicities.

Right. Whereas several months earlier, I had been doing Kingdom of Heaven, and the thing was set firmly in Jerusalem in the 12th century. So that gives me some clues right there. I don’t think you need to hear any French accordions. But in Narnia, really the doors were left open. The challenge was to find a kind of music that you couldn’t really put your finger on. It wasn’t Western, or anything, really. It was pretty much an open book. One was able, with Narnia, to look anywhere, really, for music. We did find quite quickly that by pressing any particular ethnicity on it, we were going to be distracting. And so the main thrust of the music is indeed orchestral. We did use the Finnish kantele, which has a very bright sound, quite like a hammered dulcimer. With a little bit of research I did find one of the world’s leading player of this instrument, who I never met. We did some sessions on the Internet. I would send him my melodies and my cues, and he would do what he had to do, and it worked out fantastically. I would like to meet him one day. The character of Tumnus plays a kind of flute onscreen, and the prop guys made this instrument and it didn’t look like anything you or I had ever seen before, and it needed a sound, but you couldn’t particularly put your finger on it. And I brought a great woodwind player to my studio, having written the melody, and asked him to bring truckloads of instruments. He brought instruments from China, Japan, Persia and we went through these to find an instrument that would sound like the instrument looked onscreen. It had a haunted quality, and we ended up with this Middle-Eastern wooden flute called the duduk. For the ritual in which Aslan is sacrificed, I had some big African drums. And Andrew was concerned that it sounded too much like that continent. So again, we made the time to run through various drums, and we found these beautiful Native American drums. They sounded right, and they didn’t put you in mind of deepest Africa, or Morocco, You couldn’t pinpoint it, so that’s what we went with.

Your score for Narnia is quite melodic.

Yes. There are some composers who have made an art out of making their scores interesting without writing melodies. But for my part, after having done several scores that required two hours of music or more, you’ve got to give yourself the ammunition to be able to work at that length. Imagine if you haven’t got a theme or a tune to play, it would be hard to fill two hours. So I wrote tunes for several of the characters, and I needed that to be able to get myself to where I needed to go.

When you are scoring, do you work all day, seven days a week?

Yes. I have a couple of young guys who do orchestrations. After all, Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel by himself. I don’t have a factory of workers, but I do have assistants. And they’ll be grasping onto any opportunity they can find, just like I did when I was with Hans.

When you start a movie, do you always demo a score for a director?

Yes. One of the things that did rub off on me from Hans Zimmer was using the latest technology to make a demo, and therefore allowing a director to have some insight into what you are trying to do, before he hears it on a scoring stage.

Is it a struggle to share the soundscape of a film with sound effects?

Not really. Rather than struggle with the sound effects people, we exchange ideas. As a composer you’d be a fool to think that you’re providing the only strand of audio that is going to be on the final dub of the movie. Quite often we might be just one part of a tapestry of sound. Certainly that was so in Kingdom of Heaven, and also in Narnia, especially in the battle sequence, which is very intense. The music is just one layer of sound that you hear.

You wrote great scores for both Shrek films. What kind of challenge did those present?

It is very different writing music for animation in many ways. Remember that the sound – not just the music, but the soundtrack – has to be built up from nothing. In a live action film movie, any given scene would have sound effects, what we call Foley, such as footsteps, and there would be the natural ambience noise. In an animation, there is none of that. Everything has to be provided. Similarly, you have to provide music for all the emotions. For the Shrek movies, which are essentially love stories, I think one has to look further than if they were live-action. Which is not to say that you have to make the music saccharine, or diluted in any way. But I think you have to work a little bit harder. Especially when you have a green ogre. [Laughs]