Composer Harry Gregson-Williams

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Harry Gregson-Williams is a name familiar to movie-buffs. His compositions can be heard throughout myriads of films, including Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, and more recently, Cowboys and Aliens. He has worked alongside film-composing legend, Hans Zimmer, and has won 15 awards for his compositions.

I was recently given the opportunity to interview Mr. Williams for Teen Ink.

Rachel – Tell us about yourself.

Harry Gregson-Williams – Well, I work quite a lot! I came to America in 1995. I’ve got three little Yankee children, but I’m pretty English myself. (You can probably tell by my accent.) But I’ve been here since 1995, so I feel like I’ve been repatriated.

I love California! And that’s about it.

RH- How did you first become interested in music?

HGW- I guess, my parents probably are responsible for that. I was never forced to do music, but I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing music. So, what was my pastime just became my job, my hobby, my career; whatever you want to call it.

It’s difficult to keep an interest up, I think. I meet a lot of people who say, “My gosh, I wish I hadn’t given up the piano when I was however old, because I’d like to be able to play now.” But you can’t do everything.

But in order to be quite good at something you do have to go at it. That’s my experience. You have to go at it to the exclusion of almost everything else to really stand out.

But for me, my [family] all played musical instruments, so that [decision] was pretty easy. I had very rigorous and specific schooling at six years of age to [attend boarding school]. I moved away from home to a music school. [I went] to a university in the city of Cambridge, England. (It was started by Henry VIII, I think, so it’s goes a long way back; a lot of history.)

I did an audition [at the university] and got in. That’s where I started my musical education. I think I could probably read music better than I could read words at one stage. {laughs} I was learning by doing so much of it; reading music, playing music, singing music, whatever it was. I never really thought about doing anything else; music and sports were the only things I was ever any good at; the only things I was ever interested in. And those were the things that I really pursued.

RH- Why did you decide to turn your hobby into your career?

HGW- [There was a] really peculiar area of music, which I never thought of when I was a kid, which was film music. I never considered it; never even noticed that there was music in films. It was only relatively recently, my guess, [when I noticed it]. I was in my early thirties and I had been teaching music, performing music and all of that stuff, and someone pointed out to me the music playing in a movie. It was called The Shawshank Redemption; it had a lot of feeling in it and the most really pretty music playing. It made all the difference to the film, to me. I suddenly realized it was the music that was moving me, not necessarily just the picture.

And something just spoke to me then about the music and I never really thought about doing anything else after that.

I was very fortunate to bump into Hans Zimmer, who is one of the world’s leading film composers. I met him in London. Someone introduced him to me. He showed me what he was doing. He had just finished The Lion King (and he went on to win an Oscar for that). So, he was very popular and famous and I was quite star-struck really.

We struck up a great friendship, and he suggested I come back to America, which is where he lived and worked. I thought that was kind of a mad idea; who in the world would do that? [But he said], “What have you got to lose? You’re very musical. You could learn to be a film composer.”

So that’s what I did. I got a one-way ticket over to San Monica, which is where [Hans’] studio was and after a few years of learning the ropes, I struck out on my own. I transformed a space I found into a studio; a composing suite for myself.

And that’s where I am now. That’s it. You’ve got [my entire] history!

RH- {laughs} What exactly is the job of a composer?

HGW- {laughs} That’s a funny question! It’s only a funny question because I never really think of it as a job. What is the task? Yes. What does a film composer do?

A film composer helps the audience feel things that perhaps they wouldn’t otherwise. Or maybe amplifies feelings that are there on screen anyhow. Film composing can be very subversive, as well. For instance, if there’s a certain feeling of a certain movie, [such as] a couple who are in love and kissing, you’d put sort of lovey-dovey music; but say, for instance, it’s very sinister music, and you’re going to make the audience feel [that] something’s not right; “These two aren’t made for each other!”

Music is like another character in a scene. It can make a huge difference to how a scene is portrayed by the actors and received by an audience.

Ever since movies began, obviously they started out as silent movies, but very quickly [with] Charlie Chaplain movies and what-not, they started to have music with them.

Film scoring came quite a long time after that. [Film composing] is a great job! I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve had so much fun doing it! Because one gets to write music to various tunes—not just any old tunes!—There’s a process:

Once the director has chosen you, then there’s a moment before you start the voyage of composing all that music where you sit down and do what’s called a “spotting session”; [this is] where the director spots the moments that he wants the composer to write the music for.

So you don’t have a completely open book. It isn’t just see the movie and say, “Write a lot of music, and I’ll stick it in here and stick it in there.” No. We will go through it, scene by scene, saying, “No, this scene doesn’t need music here.” Or “This scene does need music. I’d like you to start a music cue when he walks into the room, and then a couple of moments later, as he’s running down that alleyway and gets shot by so-and-so; at that moment you can stop the music cue.”

Then at the end of a spotting session, once we’ve been through the whole film, spotted, say, 30, 40, 50, 60 moments where there should be music and there, you’ve got your task right in front of you. “Okay, I’ve got 40, 50, 60 music cues to write!” Then the music is designed for each of these little scenes.

[When we do this] the film is not necessarily finished because, if we waited until the film was finished and finally cut and all the dialogue and sound effects were perfect, we’re talking about that would be about two or three weeks before the release of the film in theaters. So that would be leaving it much too late.

So, we composers start as soon as post-production is really underway. In other words, you got pre-production when they’re preparing the script and hiring the actors; production when the actors are there, shooting the film; and then, when the actors go home and all the film is shot, everything goes back to an edit room where the director and the film-editor start to piece together the film. At that point, music starts to come into play. The director might not know quite how long he can hold a shot. Maybe there’s a scene in a movie where something really dramatic has happened and the camera is pulling back from that scene; the director might not know how long he can hold that scene.

How long should we wait? How long does the audience need to sort of recover from that moment? Or how long does the audience need to be able to think about what’s just happened? You can put music to that to help the audience feel what they’re going to feel. At that point, you’ve got to start thinking about how you’re going to use the music to, not just manipulate feelings, but to amplify feelings and a perspective that perhaps isn’t there. Perhaps the actor slightly missed it. Or [the director] didn’t quite shoot it.

I’ve done many films where there have been a few scenes which just haven’t been tense enough. (What was the last action movie I did?) Cowboys and Aliens! Possibly [Jon Favreau] might have asked me to look at a certain scene because perhaps it just wasn’t tense enough. Well, the music’s job there is very clear: rack up the tension and make sure that what I bring to that scene is what the director requires in order to deliver the goods.

Once the movie is spotted, I would go off and I’d know what I’d have in my sights. I’d know how many music cues I have and how many minutes of music I’ve got to write. It’s music to a deadline. This isn’t a job for anybody who thinks he’s going to sit in a courtyard, wait till the muse hits him like Mozart might have done.

No, no, no. This is a commission. People are paying you to come up with music by Wednesday afternoon, and if you don’t, well… It’s just like with any job; you could lose your job or you could scrub badly. So, there’s a certain amount of anxiety that goes along with being a composer but maybe that’s part of the fun of it all.

The last film that I did was Arthur Christmas. That score was quite orchestral. I needed a big orchestra in order to [create] all that music. I actually recorded that at Abbey Road Studios in London. It was about 75 minutes of music, so that’s quite a lot of music. You got to write it all, orchestrate it, make sure that the right parts are on the flutes’ music stands, the French horn, the cello, the piano, whatever and then I choose to conduct that session. So I get to be a conductor for a little while. Then once that’s recorded, it’s all got to be mixed and delivered to the final dub—where the director brings the final dialogue recordings, the final sound effects and the final music together. (It’s probably a rather dramatic room where this happens at the dubbing stage.)

This is normally a very, very long mixing [stage], because [the director] has lots of input coming into his mixing desk from the music department, from me, lots of sound effects coming in and lots of big dialogue scenes—crowd noises or whatever the movie needs. All of this has to be mixed together for the final dub which is what everybody sees in the theater.

So it’s pretty good fun and it’s a very collaborative exercise.

RH- Tell us about how you got the role of composer for the first two Narnia films.

HGW- I was really lucky to do the first two Narnias and I can tell you how I came to be so lucky: My name wasn’t pulled out of a hat; there was a certain amount of great fortune involved, but it was due to my relationship with Andrew Adamson, who directed the original Shrek and I think the second one as well. He became my friend and when he got the job of directing the first two Narnias, [he offered me the job] of composer.

In fact, I’m working for [Andrew] right now. The score that I’m working on right now is for something called Mr. Pip; it’s an independent New Zealand film. Andrew’s a New Zealander by nationality, so it’s a different [pace] for him ‘cause it’s a low-budget, indie drama. Not a big fantasy like Narnia.

RH- What role did you play in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader soundtrack?

HGW- Absolutely none, actually. When Andrew himself turned down the opportunity to direct the third Narnia movie, they hired another director and he had a composer who he had already worked with and that was David Arnold. So, David got the job to do that.

And David did call me and say, “You could send me your themes. I’m gonna see if I can incorporate them into the movie.”

I watched the movie with my son when it came out and I heard some of my original Narnia themes in there, from time to time. I thought [David] did a really great job!

But I had nothing to do with it. It was, you know, the director’s choice for a different composer.

RH- Alright. I was asking because on your Wikipedia page it says that you were a consultant for the film.

HGW- Yeah, I don’t know who writes that. {laughs} But they did use my themes in a couple of spots.

RH- What new projects are you currently working on?

HGW- Well, I’m working on Mister Pip and then, next year, I’m gonna be working on a big movie for Sony called Total Recall, which was a huge movie in, I believe, the 80s with Arnold Schwarzenegger. {laughs} This is a remake and it doesn’t involve Arnie this time. It’s Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale.

So I’m really excited to work for this director. I’ve never worked with him before. His name is Len Wiseman. So, I’m looking forward to doing that next year.

RH- What advice do you have for aspiring composers?

HGW- First thing, you’ve got to be really musical; second thing, you’ve got to sacrifice quite a lot in terms of film composing is very time intensive. Don’t expect to have too many weekends to yourself. But the rewards are massive in terms of the enjoyment. As I said at the beginning, it’s never felt like I’ve had a job, because music doesn’t feel like that to me. That’s the only path that I know.

[A way to] propel yourself forward into a chance of being a film composer is to work as an assistant to somebody who already is a film composer. [You'll be able] to see how it all happens and to make connections and move on from there.





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