From left: Justin Hurwitz, Ludwig Göransson, Marc Shaiman, Terrence Blanchard, Kris Bowers and Hans Zimmer were photographed Oct. 29 at Hyde Sunset in Hollywood. 
From left: Justin Hurwitz, Ludwig Göransson, Marc Shaiman, Terrence Blanchard, Kris Bowers and Hans Zimmer were photographed Oct. 29 at Hyde Sunset in Hollywood.
Gizelle Hernandez

"We're All Trying to Service the Story": The Composer Roundtable

by Kevin Cassidy
November 27, 2018, 7:30am PST

Six score masters — Terence Blanchard, Kris Bowers, Ludwig Göransson, Justin Hurwitz, Marc Shaiman and Hans Zimmer — open up about long hours of trial and error, the fear of being pigeonholed, racing against deadlines and writing music to express "what words can't."

It may come as a surprise that it took this long, but for the first time in the decadelong history of The Hollywood Reporter's composer roundtable, someone broke into song. Perhaps less surprising, that someone was show-tune veteran Marc Shaiman, who finds himself in the awards hunt this year with Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns (if Shaiman lands an Oscar this year, he'll achieve EGOT status).

Shaiman, 59, joined an eclectic group of film music vets and upstarts who find themselves — and their music — in the awards season conversation: Terence Blanchard, 56, Spike Lee's longtime composer of choice, who provided the score for BlacKkKlansman; Justin Hurwitz, 33, who, two years after taking home two Oscars for La La Land, reteamed with director Damien Chazelle for First Man; Hans Zimmer, 61, collaborating with British auteur Steve McQueen for the third time, on Widows; Ludwig Göransson, 34, who, with Black Panther, continues a relationship with director Ryan Coogler that dates back to their time together at USC; and Kris Bowers, 29, making the leap to prestige with Peter Farrelly's race-relations road-trip movie Green Book.

As always, the composers seized on the opportunity to interact and talk shop, resulting in a lively Oct. 29 discussion (condensed and edited here) that covered everything from their workaholic tendencies to the drive for diversity and inclusion in their world.

What was the biggest musical challenge you faced on the projects you worked on this year?

MARC SHAIMAN I suppose it's because I'm a depressive Jew that the biggest problem was the fact that I was so fucking happy. I was in the middle of the project of my lifetime — my dream come true was right there and I was in the middle of it, in this warm bath of happiness and I just didn't know how to deal with that. (Laughter.) You will never hear me say such a thing about anything on any other project.

LUDWIG GÖRANSSON My biggest challenge for the score of Black Panther was that me and Ryan [Coogler], very early on, discussed how we wanted traditional African music to be the big base of the score. The really challenging part was how do you incorporate an orchestra into this? Because we still needed the cinematic sweep of a traditional European orchestra, but how do you put it into traditional African music without ruining the African music? It took a long time to figure out. I had to kind of relearn the way I write for orchestra because as Western Europeans, you always think about everything in harmony and melody, and in traditional African music, it's all about rhythm. There is such a complex rhythm system to writing African music.

HANS ZIMMER For me, very personally, Widows completed a circle because my mentor was a composer called Stanley Myers who scored the original television series and I was the tea boy on the series. In 1983, when the series came out, by Lynda La Plante, it really was about sort of the casualness of brutality that women have to endure on a daily basis. And everybody in England at the time, I remember, thought of it as a revolutionary piece of television. And so when Steve [McQueen] started talking to me about this two years ago, I realized that the shocking thing was it hadn't changed, the world. If anything, the world has gotten worse, and it was more important and more current to write about what women go through on a daily basis. So that was really important for me. I think maybe that was the challenge.

How do you write themes? Where does melody come from?

TERENCE BLANCHARD My composition teacher always used to tell me you have to learn how to listen. You gotta get your brain out of the way. For me, I have to allow my emotional state to connect to the story first of all. I'll give you an example: When I was a kid I used to go to this jazz camp in New Orleans run by this guy from Detroit named Willie Metcalf. And we used to play out in the park. When we took a break they started playing one of these recordings of Malcolm X's speeches when he was talking about the blue-eyed devil and there's going to be a revolution and the revolution's going to be bloody. I was a disciple of Martin Luther King and I had never heard anything that radical. But when I heard it and all these other people in the area were cheering for it, I was like, "Where am I?" And my heart was pounding and I just … there was a certain type of anxiety that came over me that was almost uncontrollable. Well, when I started thinking about the opening of [the 1992 film] Malcolm X, I started thinking about how maybe most people would have this similar reaction. So that's why the thing opens up with a rush of sound, because when I heard it, it stunned me into this other realm of reality. So I don't know, I think for me it's like the melody comes out of a yearning to express something that words can't do.

JUSTIN HURWITZ Yeah, I completely agree. So much of it is about listening. I think a big part of it [is] we don't know where a lot of it comes from. But in terms of how we get there, I completely agree, it's about listening.

Marc, would that be the case on something like Mary Poppins Returns, where you're drawing on very specific source material?

SHAIMAN On many other film scores it is just for me alone, because I am really a musical theater writer at heart and a lyricist as well. I would often just kind of think, "Well, what would this character sing if this was a musical?" And so I have lyrics, silly lyrics often, to almost every theme I ever wrote for any movie. Going back to City Slickers (starts singing), "He's hot shit with a pistol, he's Biiiiilly Crystal, if he gets pissed he'll shoot you dead." (Laughter.) For Mary Poppins' first song, we went through a few songs where I kind of lost track. But when we wrote what I think is the fourth song, then Scott [Wittman], my co-lyricist, he said, "Now also, besides sending the demo of you singing the song, play it like a score." And so I went, "Oh, that's right, that's what I'm supposed to be doing here, that's my job." And so I played it as I would a score. That two-minute piano solo that I play is still in the movie — it's been the music for the trailer, for the teaser. It gave birth to almost really the whole score that day.

All the projects we're discussing move back and forth among action, romance and suspense to quieter moments. Is it hard to shift gears musically?

KRIS BOWERS Yeah, definitely. A lot of times I find that in those quieter moments I write and then time makes it so that I'm actually taking a lot of stuff away. I find that time is the biggest thing, where I have my first reaction and kind of like regurgitate that onto the computer. And then I'll come back to it the next day and I'm like, actually this whole section here, all these notes, don't make any sense. I think the longer you get to know the characters and you get to know the story and the way that it's supposed to feel, the more you kind of feel what's right. And for me, a lot of it's actually erasing things after I've done that first iteration of it. I find that I don't really add very much. I usually just take a lot away.

HURWITZ Probably one of the biggest challenges [on First Man] was scoring the really intimate scenes. The movie goes back and forth between these big, grand space-action sequences, obviously because it's a space movie, but it also has this side to it where it's very quiet, intimate. We knew a lot of those scenes needed music, but just how to score them was really difficult. Damien [Chazelle] has a really melodic sensibility to how he likes scenes scored. So to be able to score them thematically and melodically but also have a light enough touch to work with that really handheld, cinema verite-style filmmaking, that was … it took a lot of trial and error.

ZIMMER Those scenes are so complicated to score — the quiet ones, the poetic ones, the real ones. …

Is it hard to put so much effort into the music when you know that most moviegoers aren't going to be aware of it?

BLANCHARD You know, people sometimes used to think it was kind of a jab if they went and saw a movie that I had done and they said, "Oh, I didn't notice the music." I'm like, "Actually, that's probably a good thing." Depending on the film, the music should be seamless, it should be like air. It should be like lighting, it should be part of the whole thing. For me, I love that moment where — especially where it's just that rush of energy where it's the acting combined with maybe the camera movement — where it all comes together. So I don't really care about it either way, because I think at the end of the day it's a collaborative thing that we do. We're all trying to service the story. And the cool part about it is that us being composers, being musicians, the story is the thing that gives us the chance to be different characters ourselves. I think one of the [big] questions for me with composers is, "How do you see yourself?" Because I know [how] the industry will see us. They'll see him a certain way and him a certain way (pointing), just based on a current project that you have.

You mean in terms of being pigeonholed?

BLANCHARD Yeah. We have all these other interests in other musical areas, but people see us as just the latest project.

ZIMMER It's the truth because … while you were talking, I just thought about it: I have probably used the banjo, that underrated instrument, in more scores than anybody else has. Driving Miss Daisy, Pirates, Sherlock Holmes. I should be known as the banjo composer! (Laughter.) As opposed to being pigeonholed into superheroes. And please don't forget my comedies. …

GÖRANSSON I got my start in this business in scoring comedies. That was kind of my first job. I had four to five major network comedy shows, like 30-minute shows, five different shows at one time. I thought, "This is great." But I was definitely worried about it. I was 26, 27 and I was like, "How do I ever get a chance to work on anything else?" I met Ryan Coogler at USC in film school and I knew from the first time that we worked together on his little five-minute short film that he was an incredible talent. But at the time I was also like, "This is probably going to take 20 years because most directors don't get their break until they're 40." It was right about [the time] I was doing five comedy shows that Ryan called me and asked if I wanted to do Fruitvale Station. At the time I was making a good living. I could've said, "No, I'm busy with my shows and there's no money in this." But of course I took the opportunity and wanted to work with my friend. And his whole life and both of our lives changed.

BOWERS I think that in the beginning for me, kind of similarly, I was mostly doing sports documentaries, randomly. I did this Kobe Bryant documentary and I did a few football player documentaries. And all of a sudden I was only getting calls to do sports documentary stuff. But the thing that I'm finding now is that I almost am being preemptively pigeonholed sometimes because I'm African-American, because I'm black. I've never written a score that has hip-hop in it at all, and my agents ask constantly if I can do a hip-hop score for a TV show or something like that. So that's the thing that I'm always trying to figure out: How do I, as a new composer, as a young composer, take on work or take on projects that I want, so that I can try to build a name, but at the same time a lot of the things that are at least at first being offered have these presumptions tied to them.

BLANCHARD That's not going to change. I hate to tell you that. In my career it's frustrating for my agents sometimes for them to get the [remark], "Oh, we're really interested in Terence, but this may be a stretch because he may have to write for orchestra."

What?

BLANCHARD Yeah, I get those questions. But that's just part of the business that has nothing to do with music. It has nothing to do with your talent. And the thing that I always say is, "You have to work hard and make sure that your product is servicing this story." That's the main thing. My first agent in the business was thoroughly appalled that people were asking him if I was black. He said, "I've never gotten that question with any of my other clients." This is right after we did Malcolm X. I had gotten 11 scripts and most of them were for genre movies that you would think only an African-American would score. And I turned them all down. I said, "I'm not going to become that person." You don't allow other people to view you the way you view yourself. You know what I mean? They can have their views, but I know who I am. And I try to make sure that whatever project that I do get, I do it to the fullest and I try to service that story. It's like I have this thing about working with Spike [Lee]. Spike puts a lot of trust in me. It's an unusual relationship in that he doesn't want to have mock-ups, he wants to hear it on the piano. And once he hears it on the piano …

SHAIMAN Can I work for him? (Laughter.)

BLANCHARD Once he hears it on the piano and then we do the spotting, he doesn't want to hear anything until we get to the stage.

BOWERS Wow.

BLANCHARD And that's unusual. But by him putting that amount of trust in me, it makes me work that much harder to make sure I don't let him down. But my father was a workaholic, so I have that in me. So I know, speaking as a person who is slightly older than you … I hate to say it, but that's going to follow you in this business. You don't get to a point where that goes away.

How can that get better?

BLANCHARD Well, the country has to change.

SHAIMAN Vote.

ZIMMER Everything we do these days has to be political.

BLANCHARD Yes.

ZIMMER I'm this German guy. … Why did Penny Marshall give me something about the '40s, ladies playing baseball, and it had to have swing music in it, you know? [Zimmer scored A League of Their Own.] I said, "I have no idea about any of this and I still don't understand baseball, OK?" But it interested me. The story interested me. Go after the stories that interest you. I've had these conversations with so many young composers. Break down the doors. That's your duty. And the other thing is — you're talking about being a workaholic — what's the operative word in music? It's "play." We play, let's be playful. Let's take playing really, really seriously. I'm sorry, Marc, for as long as I've known you, and I've known you for quite a while, you are one of the most playful human beings I know. I think that's the secret to your success. You can't stop being playful.

BLANCHARD Wayne Shorter always used to say, and Art Blakey always used to tell it, you need to have the imagination of a child.

ZIMMER Before they crack it, before they narrow it, before they put you into a little box.

Politics does seem to be spreading into everything. There was even the flag controversy about the moon landing in First Man. Justin, were you affected by that at all?

HURWITZ I don't think it played a part in my process. I was just trying to score the humanity in the film, what Neil and Janet Armstrong were going through, their experience, their loss, their personal story.

Every year it's difficult to find female composers who are a big part of the awards conversation. Why is that, and what needs to change?

GÖRANSSON I think just being more aware. I have a very small team now, it's me and like two other people. But I'm always taking into consideration that a lot of people get their breaks from working as assistants. They work as an assistant for a successful composer and then they move on because the composer gives them a chance. And that's something that we have to be aware of as composers: hire more women, hire more female composers, and don't treat them differently than we do male composer assistants.

ZIMMER I worked with Shirley Walker, she was my orchestrator. She was an incredibly gifted composer, world-class, astonishing composer. And I finally fired her in the nicest possible way, [saying], "Shirley, if you carry on orchestrating for me, you're never going to go out there and you're never going to go be a composer."

BLANCHARD Sometimes I think that question is not for us. Musicians aren't the ones that have issues because for us, if you got something to offer, bring it, you know what I mean? I want to experience it. If it's something that resonates with what we're doing, fine, let's have it. So it's not with us. I think it's with the people who make the decisions on who's hiring.

GÖRANSSON It is up to us a little bit to have the balls to [say] "OK, well, I'll do this Hollywood Reporter roundtable panel if you guys bring a woman on board." That's something that we do have the power of doing.

ZIMMER Well, in a hundred-something movies, I've worked with 12 female directors. That's not a very good batting average.

In terms of your work process, what is the most intense phase — the beginning or end?

HURWITZ The end, as we get close to the sessions. First Man had a lot of phases. There was the whole preproduction phase of working at the piano, trying to find themes, then playing around with sounds, while Damien was off prepping and shooting in Atlanta. And that was actually a pretty relaxed period because I was just sort of on my own and sending ideas when I had them. And then we got into the editing room and we do this thing with offices next to each other during postproduction, so they're in the editing room and I'm next door. And the hours picked up quite a bit. Other people are better at this and it's not something that I've historically been good at, but it was kind of a new thing for me this year — take Sundays off — which was actually really nice.

Doesn't this wreak havoc on your personal life?

SHAIMAN You look for a lot of forgiveness. (Laughter.) When he was talking it was reminding me of … this is a true story: I was once up at the house and I realized I hadn't left this house in weeks and weeks and weeks. It's right up the hill. There was a session the next day and if I didn't finish this cue, the whole house of cards would fall apart. But I was like, I've got to get out of here. And I talked myself into "If I get out of here and I go eat dinner at Genghis Cohen, I will come back having gotten out of here." So I thought, "I'm going to do it." I get in the car for the first time in five weeks and I go to Genghis Cohen and I have my lovely beef with broccoli and the crackerjack shrimp, egg roll. I was like, "I'm glad I did this." And then the fortune cookie came and I opened it and it said, "Someone is waiting for a cue." (Laughter.)

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.