Four Composers Break Down Their Oscar-Nominated Scores

8:00 AM 2/6/2018

by Rebecca Ford

Carter Burwell, Alexandre Desplat, Jonny Greenwood and John Williams discuss how they aimed to create water out of sound, romance without cheesiness and bring a new sonic force to the Star Wars universe.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight; Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight; Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney; Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Carter Burwell

    'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

    Phillip Faraone/FilmMagic

    Martin McDonagh's dark comedy about a mother (Frances McDormand) seeking justice for her murdered daughter features a slew of colorful characters, from a closed-minded cop (Sam Rockwell) to a troubled police chief (Woody Harrelson). But Burwell had to focus his score on the themes of the film rather than the characters. "A lot of times, you might attach a musical theme to particular characters or particular story elements, but because of the odd way the characters come and go, and the way their alliances keep shifting, it didn't really work to play the characters," says Burwell, who earned his second Oscar nom (he previously was nominated for 2015's Carol). "The themes are conceptual ones, like death or vengeance or loss, and once I had those in mind, then the score was relatively straightforward."

  • Alexandre Desplat

    'The Shape of Water'

    Amanda Edwards/WireImage

    How does one give a voice to two characters who can't speak? Desplat was faced with using the score for Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water to allow the film's silent characters — the mute cleaning lady played by Sally Hawkins and the sea creature played by Doug Jones — to express themselves without words. "I created a love theme based on the individual themes I created for the characters — an accordion representing him and flutes representing her," says Desplat, who earned his ninth nomination for the score (he won for The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2015). The other challenge was to create a score that "would sound like it would be played underwater," he says. "When you're underwater in a swimming pool or the sea, you can hear music in the distance, but it's very blurred."

  • Jonny Greenwood

    'Phantom Thread'

    Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

    Greenwood, who has scored every Paul Thomas Anderson film since 2007's There Will Be Blood, was tasked with finding the right tone for the 1950s-set dramedy that stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a dress designer who falls for a complicated muse (Vicky Krieps). The Radiohead guitarist, who earned his first Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread, had to figure out how to write sincerely romantic music — and in an English style — but also make sure it was "not ironic or pastiche," he says. "This was the toughest part to figure out — keeping it heartfelt but not bursting the bubble of the film's period setting." For the score, he teamed with the London Contemporary Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as well as their respective conductors, Rob Ames and Robert Ziegler, who he says "made the music come alive."

  • John Williams

    'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

    Rich Polk/Getty Images for Disney

    The veteran composer received his 51st nomination (the most by any living person) for the score to Rian Johnson's space epic. Williams, 85, has won the Oscar five times — for Fiddler on the RoofJaws, Star Wars: A New Hope, E.T. and Schindler's List. He has worked on every Star Wars movie (two years ago he was nominated for his score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and he is working on the upcoming Han Solo stand-alone, Solo), which presents him with the challenge of honoring his past work and the iconic scores that fans love while also creating something new. For The Last Jedi, Williams brought in themes for the new characters joining a galaxy far, far away including Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and new relationships being explored such as those of Rose and Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Ridley) and Kylo (Adam Driver).

    This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.