Keeping score

Top composers discuss their latest projects.


Harry Gregson-Williams
"Deja vu"

(Buena Vista; release Date: Nov. 22)

"'Deja Vu' is a slightly different movie from the other movies I've worked on with (director) Tony (Scott.) It's a thriller and an action movie, but it also is a love story. The main character, Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), is a very smart and straight-up guy who fulfills a complex trajectory from the beginning to the end of the film. He's all about getting answers to tricky questions, and so musically, this translates as very driven and often quizzical. His theme takes quite a while to unravel, and as it does, its edges soften, reflecting his feelings for the girl that he's trying to save. When working with Tony, musically, we are constantly mixing dark with light. We tried to make the music play against what's playing onscreen, which works well in this situation. The visuals are so strong and striking that for the music to underline what you're seeing would be too much and would not necessarily add any new dimension. Often with these two opposites going on in the music simultaneously -- this uneasy marriage between darkness and light -- a strange atmosphere is created. Hopefully, something like the odd sensation that deja vu can give you. There is over 90 minutes of music in this movie. That in itself is quite a challenge to me. With this score, I had to find a sense of deep mystery, so I employed a few musical curiosities ranging from a Mexican harpist whom I sampled and processed to a piano motif, which is only ever heard in reverse, creating a strange underlying sense of tension. Also, I was thrilled to have Macy Gray vocalizing on parts of the score. Macy has such a unique quality to her voice, and this seemed to embody the mystery we were after. One of the greatest rewards of working on this film was working with Tony again, as now we really do seem to be speaking the same language. Additionally, Tony almost requires me, as a composer, to step outside of any comfort zone I might possibly have slid into musically, and he demands that I push myself into places I might not venture into voluntarily. Pretty scary -- but ultimately, utterly rewarding creatively."


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Mychael Danna
"The Nativity Story"

(New Line; release Date: Dec. 1)

"'The Nativity Story' is centered on the experience of Mary, going from a young girl in Nazareth to discovering that she has this profound destiny. We followed that path. When we first meet her, she's just a normal young girl. By the end of the film, she and her husband Joseph and her baby are riding off into Egypt to escape Herod's soldiers. Director Catherine Hardwicke wanted to hear more than what was onscreen and to reference the fact that an entire civilization ended up being based around this story. Without landing like a load of bricks with that message, we wanted to subtly reference some of those sources and some of those melodies and instruments that were inspired by the well-known story. The overall concept (of the score) was largely to lean away from just scoring what we're seeing on the screen, which is the Middle East 2,000 years ago. Through musical quotes and musical settings, it takes us to the Age of Faith that happens in Europe 1,000 years after that during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (Musically), Mary's character is definitely a focal point -- how we track her development as a person and her relationship with Joseph. There's a lot of scoring that is very specific to the dramatic action that's going on in the film. The greatest reward was to be able to, in my own humble way, pass on some of what this whole musical culture has meant to me. I started out firmly in this culture, singing in church choirs. I sang many of the melodies that I used. My score shows how important they were to me and to making me what and who I am, musically and in every other way. It was very meaningful for me to be able to work with those things that were so important to me and to be able to pass them on to audiences."


Christophe Beck
"We Are Marshall"

(Warner Bros. Pictures; release Date: Dec. 22)

"'We Are Marshall' is a true story about a devastating tragedy that occurred to a small town and its star football team. ... (Director) McG was clear from the start that he wanted a hyperbolic score that wasn't afraid to really play to the drama on the screen. At the same time, in some of the film's more personal scenes, he urged me to explore the opposite approach, to try some more intimate and minimal ideas orchestrationally. This film is probably the most traditionally theme-driven score I've composed. There are themes for individual characters, as well as for the town and the football team itself. As the characters develop and deal with their grief, so do their themes, (which) grow in complexity. A theme that is first heard on a solo horn or performed by a single vocalist might later be embraced by the full orchestra and set against a different backdrop. I tried to craft the score in such a way that someone could simply listen to the score, beginning to end, and have an accurate sense of the story's arc. The score, for the most part, is a traditional orchestral score, with judicious use of electric guitar. I also occasionally used a 'drum line' sound to give the football sequences an air of collegiate -- and even militaristic -- excitement. We layered several percussionists on top of one another to sound like a full drum line. For the electric guitar, which was masterfully played by George Doering, we used a 40-year-old instrument and amplifier, which made for a very clean, organic, warm sound. The best part about doing a score like this, for me, is to have such a strong role in the telling of a great story. Many sequences in this film are score-driven and were incredibly satisfying to work on. The biggest challenge was coming up with strong themes. I took a great deal of care in crafting the themes for 'We Are Marshall,' knowing that they would have to be set to scenes both tragic and inspirational."


Mark Isham
"Bobby"

(MGM/The Weinstein Co.; release Date: Nov. 17, limited)

"In regards to scoring 'Bobby,' there were several things the music had to do. First of all, we had to establish the music and themes for Bobby (Sen. Robert F. Kennedy). RFK is an overriding presence in the film. We all know what happens, but very early in the film, we're introduced to a large number of characters that are part of the film, which takes place over 24 hours. So, the job of the music is not only to identify the emotional and philosophic essence of Bobby himself, but to also reflect the very personal experience of each one of the characters that we get to know during the telling of the story. The music introduces you to these characters and then reflects on each one of their experiences through the film. The first job was to find a theme that fit with the ideas that RFK was presenting at the time. ... Once that theme was established, we used an orchestra to create an emotionally epic theme. There are moving speeches by Bobby Kennedy, and the score serves as the backdrop for those. He had a very strong philosophical view that he was expressing, so the theme had to be large enough to take that, and it also had to be able to ... be intimately tragic at the same time. The score touches on almost all the main characters and their emotionally pivotal moments as they head into the later part of the evening. ... The structure of the score is that there is a theme that comes out of the hotel, and then once you get to know each character, they pick up their own music. There is an 11-minute ending where we see how our characters have experienced this awful event. It was quite something to score emotionally, as well as the fact that this is a story in which everyone knows what happens at the end of the film. Once the shooting takes place, RFK's voice carries you out at the end of the film, and there is an emotional dialogue between the speech and the score. The score has to reflect the loss, the tragedy, the human predicament and, at the same time, reflect with what Bobby Kennedy is actually saying to us, the hope that he is offering."
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