As the Oscar race draws to a close, speculation continues about the year’s most coveted and contested awards. But just because “Best Picture” and “Best Directing” are the only things entertainment reporters want to debate, this shouldn’t diminish the significance of the other awards. One category that has always remained inextricably linked to the final stretch of the awards season is “Best Musical Score.” Often overlooked, a musical score can make or break a film by providing it with the right soul. Recently, the Daily discussed the process and experience of film scoring with renowned composer James Newton Howard.
Like most composers, Howard should be well known to film enthusiasts. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ve heard from him by way of his work in scoring more than 130 movies since he got into the business in the 1980s.
“I never meant to choose this career path,” Howard explained. “I started classical piano lessons and I was something of a prodigious pianist. And it was shortly after that that I realized I was pretty good, but I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to have a career as a concert pianist, nor did I want one.
“I was sort of tired of practicing the piano, and I was very much drawn to popular music; so I dropped out of (the University of Southern California) sort of embarrassingly, six or seven weeks into my freshman year, and turned down a full scholarship, which was kind of traumatic — but I just had to do it.”
In 1975, Howard was hired by Elton John to play keyboards and do orchestration. After a few years, he went on to work as a session musician, arranger and orchestrator for record production. He was offered his first movie score in 1985.
“I didn’t know how to write music to picture — how to synchronize the music — and I didn’t know what I could write in six weeks or eight weeks,” Howard said. “Then I was talked into it … and I don’t mean to be simplistic, but I was just head over heels in love from day one.”
His creative process is simple: Write music.
“I think what happens is if one starts to try and look at an image of a movie and try and immediately write music that synchronizes exactly with the movie, it becomes very frustrating and overwhelming,” he explained. “What I usually do is read a script or have a fairly long, detailed conversation with the director and just go away from the movie and just play.
“What I’ll try and do is compose something, even if it’s 10 or 15 or 20 seconds, that just feels like it has some DNA — some connection to the movie I’ve seen. It’s really mostly more of a feeling level than an intellectual level.”
“And then I’ll put it up against the picture and see if any of it works,” he added. “And I just kind of inch my way along. It’s very much about — and I think all creative process is like this — about being able to trust your internal life and somehow just turn it over to that process and … in spite of your fear and insecurity, just trust that your ideas will be somehow applicable to the movie.”
Beyond being set to a film, Howard said he strongly considers how a movie score can stand as a cohesive, independent musical work.
“I think a lot about ‘What life beyond the movie can this music have?’ and I think of who’s listening to it and I pay attention to that idea,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing to feel, but it also can be potentially dangerous. … I really didn’t sense how subtle a score could be in supporting a movie without being so busy, so the inspiration and the feeling that I wanted to write interesting music in its own right is something that I’ve had to balance with supporting the film in a sort of simple and meaningful way.”
Still, Howard doesn’t limit himself as a composer. He explained that his creative process tends to differ a little each time he sits down to compose.
“A great score is a great score,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a very busy, in-your-face score and depending on what the means of the movie are, sometimes it’s an ambient, simple, kind of atmospheric piece of work.”
The focus is, ultimately, establishing a clear point of view that moves the story forward.
“I guess what a good composer can do is somehow transform his or her emotions and feelings in response to a movie into music,” he said.
“That’s something I don’t really feel you can learn,” he added. “I think you either can do that or you can’t. You can learn technique; you can learn how to play; you can learn how to orchestrate; you can learn how to operate your sequencer; but in terms of responding meaningfully and emotionally in a kind of profound way, I think that’s something that’s completely intuitive.”
Beyond that, scoring is, as Howard described, a process of “inching forward.”
“It’s very tempting to accept your first solution to a problem, because the stress is so great and you’ve got so many elements that are rained down on you,” he said. “I know how to go from a car chase to a lovemaking scene to the office … I can do all that, that’s just architecture. What’s really hard is to be patient and let another idea somehow surface.”
As the music industry and process of score production evolve, Howard tries to keep up to date on the latest techniques and musical synthesis.
“I was a synthesis and a keyboard player when I was with bands back in the ’70s and ’80s, so I learned the idea of working with electronics and working in recording environment,” he said. “I seek out younger people to do programming for me. Like on ‘The Bourne Legacy,’ for instance, there was a real need for that to be a more electronically oriented score, and I listed other people to come in and help me with the programming, which I think was successful.”
According to Howard, all he hopes for at the end of the day is a well-made movie.
“When you get a movie like a ‘Michael Clayton’ or a ‘(The) Hunger Games,’ that’s really an exceptionally well-made movie, it always makes everybody work better. I can write my best score for a bad movie and nobody notices, and I can write a mediocre score for a great movie and everybody thinks it’s a great score. It’s all context.”
Moving forward, much of Howard’s repertoire will depend on established relationships with directors like “Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence, and he aspires to keep his music relevant and emotionally charged.
“I think everything inspires me. What is inspiration other than the totality of your life experience? It’s not as though I have a moment and it inspires me to go write. I think inspiration just consists of some reservoir of life experiences that you’re connected to and you start the creative process.”