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Composer Roundtable: 5 Music Masters Talk Anxiety, Demanding Directors and When No Sound Is Better

Hollywood's leading film scorers — Harry Gregson-Williams ('The Martian'), Daniel Pemberton ('Steve Jobs'), Johann Johannsson ('Sicario'), Michael Giacchino ('Inside Out') and Carter Burwell ('Carol') — discuss the perils of talking to filmmakers and why ignoring meddling studio execs is a fantastic idea.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When five of Hollywood’s hottest film scorers gathered inside The Spare Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for THR‘s annual composer roundtable, none sounded remotely daunted about the demands of creating original music for some of the most acclaimed films of the year. In fact, in contrast to the stereotype of the composer as angst-ridden loner, this year’s crop of music men was remarkably upbeat about their craft. Englishmen Harry Gregson-Williams, 53, raved about working with Ridley Scott (again) on The Martian, and Daniel Pemberton, 38, relished the opportunity to tackle the complexity of Steve Jobs; Iceland’s Johann Johannsson, 46, was thrilled to write minimalist action music for Sicario; Michael Giacchino, 48, used Inside Out to help him empathize with his daughter; and CarterBurwell, 60, who took a break from working with the Coen brothers to score Todd Haynes’ Carol, unabashedly declared, “I enjoy doing music every day, whether I have a film or not.”

What was the biggest musical challenge you faced in the past year?

GIACCHINO Probably the fact that I have a 15-year-old daughter, and a lot of what Inside Out is dealing with — the relationship with this girl and her parents — was bringing up a lot of what I’m going through right now with my daughter. We have a wonderful relationship, but I mean there were times I was just sitting there and literally I would just start crying at the keyboard. There were times I just had to get up and walk away for a while and then come back. So I think the biggest challenge was an emotional one, working on a film that emotionally I was very, very close to.

PEMBERTON On Steve Jobs, I was given the script, which was in this crazy, super-password-protected seven-app system because no one was allowed to have it. And I remember reading it — it was like, I think, 185 pages — and I thought, “This is fantastic; this is one of the best scripts I’ve read. But where the hell do I fit in?” So the first challenge was: How can I do anything that’s of any worth to the film? But [director] Danny Boyle shot it in three acts. It was like a three-act film, so we had the idea of doing three different scores. He described the first act as Vision, the second act was Revenge and the third act was Wisdom. And that was a really cool thing to grasp hold of. It seemed like a great intellectual concept, but you can have great intellectual concepts on a film and then they turn out to be rubbish. But because I came on so early, we had a lot of time to basically allow me to mess up.

JOHANNSSON On Sicario, I was writing action music really for the first time. I haven’t done a lot of films with a lot of action. So, it was about doing that in a way that I kind of found interesting, and that kind of challenged me. [Director Denis Villeneuve] had this phrase: “Write subtle war music.” Which was quite a challenge in some ways, and maybe a contradiction in terms. What is a subtle war? And what is subtle war music? I gravitated toward using percussion and the idea of war drums. I built these layers of percussion — building this kind of tapestry of constant, throbbing, pulsating drums. So that pulse is this heartbeat that runs throughout the film.

“The challenge was to make what I wrote true to the characters — the whole movie is this very carefully paced process of falling in love,” says Burwell.

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What is the anxiety level like when you start a project?

BURWELL You know, it’s really not about writing music, I have to say. I enjoy doing music every day, whether I have a film or not. But the process, the schedules that you go through in this work, is very demanding in terms of time. I do get a certain physical anxiety knowing that in the next couple of months I’m not going to be sleeping, I’m not going to see my family.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS Carter, do you find that because you’ve worked with the same directors over and over — as I have — you find that that anxiety lessens the more you work with, for instance, the Coen brothers?

BURWELL Well, honestly, it doesn’t come up with them. Because they edit their films. So they’ve actually scheduled their post in a sort of humane way. No one else does that as far as I know. So it doesn’t actually come up at all with them. But that is not generally the way the industry [works].

GREGSON-WILLIAMS The reason I mention that is because I found that working on The Martian was a joy. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve worked with Ridley Scott several times now and obviously with his brother [the late Tony Scott] multiple times. So we kind of know who we are. We don’t know, neces­sarily, where we’re going to go on a journey. But I know from his body language whether he likes something a lot or just OK. He doesn’t even need to say anything to me. It does lessen the stress and tension. I didn’t feel too much stress and tension with The Martian simply because he’s a strong director and he’s someone I’ve come to know. But with someone like Ridley, he gently pushes you on your way — directs you to the best path possible to start off on.

PEMBERTON I’ve done a couple of things with Ridley and I find it exactly the same. I found him really protective because I did my first big feature film with him — The Counselor.

“I had to write a lot of optimistic music. I’m not known for my optimistic scores. It was quite fun to go there,” says Gregson-Williams about composing the music for ‘The Martian.’

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What happens when you don’t have a supportive director?

GIACCHINO I only work with people I like. I never work with people that I can tell I’m not going to like. I just won’t. Life’s too short. For me, the guys I work with are my friends. So I can’t wait to start working on these things with them because I know it’s going to be a fun adventure and an incredibly collaborative environment. And if I write something they don’t like, say it, and if there’s something that I’m not feeling right with in the film, I can say it.

What is the moment like when you first play what you’ve written for a director?

JOHANNSSON It’s always kind of stressful to send the first demos. For me it’s usually done remotely because I live in Germany, in Berlin.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS And that’s an added stress, right?

JOHANNSSON Well, yeah. But sometimes, you know, it’s good to have distance as well. (Laughs.) With Denis, we’re working on our third film now, so there is an understanding. There are shared sensibilities. The stress comes maybe from the fact that he doesn’t want to hear something he’s heard before. So it is a little bit nerve-racking to send those first demos.

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What’s the best and worst way for a director to actually tell you what he or she wants?

GREGSON-WILLIAMS As Michael said, everybody’s got to be honest. There’s nothing worse than someone saying, “Yeah, I like it,” and then you find out later they actually don’t like it. So honesty’s got to be the best policy.

GIACCHINO I think, for me, it’s about when a director is able to talk in terms of story, character and emotions. We don’t talk about music at all. Rarely in the relationships I have do we ever talk about music. We talk about feeling. And we talk about what a character is going through, what is the sort of empathetic response that the music is for that character. I find that to be the best way.

“You have to try things out and do experiments — it’s always about finding the voice of the film,” Johannsson tells THR.?

But what if a director specifically says, “I want it to sound like this?”

PEMBERTON That’s not a good thing. That’s not good.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS I really appreciated Ridley because he is an artist. He paints, so he talks about color and texture …

GIACCHINO Oh, that’s good.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS It’s as if he were talking about a canvas. I mean, if you look at his movies, they’re pretty much like paintings, anyhow. So my job will then be to translate that in musical terms. Rarely will we come across a director who’s really interested in how many damn French horns you’re using. But having said that, with the technology that we have, it wouldn’t be impossible for a director to say, “Look, um, what’s that lead sound?” And your answer might be, “A clarinet.” And he might say, “What would that sound like if it were on a French horn?” Well, we can do that; we can arrange that within a few seconds, actually.

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Do directors do that? Do they ask for specific instruments?

BURWELL As Michael said, I would really prefer not to work with those directors. And it’s because if he starts speaking in those terms, when they say oboe, I don’t know if they really mean an oboe or they mean it was a trumpet. (Laughter.) It could be anything, you know? It really is the worst, for me, the worst way to converse with a director. It’s really about emotion and drama. When they get into musical specifics, I just find it to be a mess because I don’t know how much they know, and they sometimes know a little bit. Man, that’s dangerous, you know?


BURWELL The little bit that they do know …

Says Pemberton, “I’ve got to step back a lot of the time. That’s the biggest problem — figuring out, ‘Where do I fit in all this?’ “

Why is that? What can happen?

BURWELL The most extreme example I came across [was] on the movie Twilight, where an executive heard the melody, which we were all liking — the director and all — and he said, “Is that a dissonance?” I said, “It is a dissonance, that’s right.” And he says, “Well, I don’t think our audience is going to accept that.” And he was serious. He had enough musical education to know what a dissonance was. I ended up, basically, ignoring his comments. I don’t know. I’ve never come across a situation in which the director’s knowledge of music is helpful. Whereas, Todd Haynes, who directed Carol, is very musically astute. And he has a great knowledge of music. But he never speaks to me in those terms. He doesn’t say, “Couldn’t that be a clarinet?” or, you know, “Shouldn’t that be minor instead of major?”

PEMBERTON What I think you really want is a director who understands what music can do in a film. That’s the best thing, where they understand what it can bring.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS The possibilities, yeah.

PEMBERTON Yeah. Because that’s when I think you get great cinema.

GIACCHINO I always love it when they know what they want to feel.

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How does film music convey feeling so effectively? How does it convey complex emotion?

GREGSON-WILLIAMS I think it all depends wholly on what’s going on in the film. If, in The Martian, Matt Damon’s character had been played or written in a different way — like if he just would have laid down and died there … but [he didn’t]. He had optimism and the humor to maintain in this desperate situation. So all those things were totally key to me as to what music might be able to accompany him.

PEMBERTON On Steve Jobs, I had to hold back so much because we couldn’t push emotion in a very up-front way because it would distract from the dialogue and distract from the performances. Because in that film, those are so key. So it’s like: How [do I] tell the story in a way that still feels interesting and still pushes the story along? I kind of had to step back a lot of the time. I think the biggest problem with all pro­jects is working out, “Where do I fit in on this?” Like the Inside Out score on Steve Jobs would sound totally bizarre; and the Steve Jobs sound on Inside Out would sound totally bizarre.

GIACCHINO I’d like to hear that. (Laughter.) Sometimes, though, what you’re feeling is literally just one note. You know? And that’s all you need; it’s that simple. I think the simpler, the better.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS But don’t you think as we progress as composers, we dare to be simpler? Because I think when you start off, you feel all these feelings. You want to push the kitchen sink into [the score]. It’s a much more skillful job to find the essence of what we’re after, and then utilize that. I think it’s probably more powerful.

JOHANNSSON In those direct cases where there actually exists two scores or two sets of music for a film — like 2001, for example, there’s this great lost score from Alex North. And then there’s the music that Kubrick brilliantly chose for the film. To compare them — they’re so completely different.

“The music just sort of happened because I was so emotionally affected by the film, so the music part wasn’t necessarily the challenge for me. It was just sort of filtering all of the emotional responses I kept having,” says Giacchino about scoring ‘Inside Out.’

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There also are long stretches in 2001 where there’s no music.

GIACCHINO Yeah, which is great.

JOHANNSSON Absolutely.


GIACCHINO Half of the time, I’m arguing where we shouldn’t have music as opposed to where we should have it. I’m always trying to find the spaces where we shouldn’t have it or don’t need it. And you win that sometimes, you lose it sometimes. Some people just like a lot of music.

Should the moviegoer be aware of the music?

BURWELL To me, when you go to a film and it’s literally like looking at a painting — you’re not noticing the actor; you’re not noticing the sound effects or the music. You’re just involved in the story that’s happening in front of you. Theater is best when it’s like that, too, when you’re just so engrossed with what’s happening that you’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m in a theater and there’s a million other people in here.” That, to me, is when it’s at its best, when you’re just lost in it.

JOHANNSSON It depends on the approach and it depends on the film. There are some films where a more kind of invisible sound works better. And then there are some films where you need a more aggressive approach.

PEMBERTON All through [Steve Jobs], one of the biggest challenges was trying to find this balance. I went in experimenting very heavily in the beginning. That’s when you get weird mistakes that kind of actually become something new and quite different. In one of my favorite scenes, the music is so boring. There’s a bit where Steve Jobs and [Apple’s Steve] Wozniak are having this big argument in front of a whole crowd in the third act. And [the score] is just a tiny pulse with a couple of bass chords, and it’s unbelievably minimal. And there’s also these huge orchestral pieces in the second act. But this bit for me was actually the most powerful bit of the movie because it makes the scene even more intense. Yet there’s so little to the music. It brings something to the scene that an orchestra would not have done.

From left: Burwell, Pemberton, Giacchino. Says Giacchino, “I love it when directors know what they want to feel.”

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How often are you asked to fix problems with music?

GIACCHINO I’ve been with directors who have said, “You know, I didn’t do this right and the intention was for it to be like this. And I wanted this feeling, but I’m not getting any of that. How can we get there?” Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t.

BURWELL That’s because music’s the last thing, virtually, that happens to a film. The “fixing” does come up, it definitely does. It could be the casting. It could be the way it was acted and the way it’s shot. I mean, it can be anything. The music can’t necessarily fix it but …

GIACCHINO It can disguise it a bit.

JOHANNSSON It is amazing how music can actually improve a performance.

How does that work?

GREGSON-WILLIAMS Well, perhaps the actor has slightly minimized the characterization and somehow the composer’s found a way of adding something to his character that maybe brings out some emotion or something that isn’t there.

BURWELL But the challenge is if you’re really just papering over a pro­blem or if the audience senses they’re being manipulated, then what we do has just failed. There’s only a certain distance you can go.

How do you all balance your personal lives with work?

GIACCHINO Nine-to-five, no weekends. That’s it.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS You don’t compose on the weekends?

GIACCHINO I don’t work on weekends and I don’t work in the evenings, because I kind of want to use that time to see my friends, see my kids. For me, I love what I do. But there is also life as well, and I don’t want to miss that. And I always feel like that part of my life feeds my creative side. So that allows me to write music.

BURWELL I have a similar formula. But reality doesn’t always accommodate it. So I’ll work nine to six, then stop for dinner. But then once the kids are asleep, I go back to work. I can’t get it done unless I work nights, too. It just doesn’t work.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS I work very early in the morning. I had a decade where I worked very late at night. But I have small children now, so I’m actually not interested in working late into the night. Unless I have to. You know, I was from the school of the total immersion. Let me call that my “Tony Scott Period.” (Laughter.) But I’m no longer in that period.

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During last year’s roundtable, it became clear that most composers don’t sleep well. True?

GIACCHINO Happiest part of the day is turning off the lights in my writ­ing room, and I don’t look back.

PEMBERTON I’ve been recently working until like one or two in the morning. I’m in the very bad, fully immersive [phase], which I can’t do forever. But the worst thing I find is, after you write certain melodies, they’re in your head and you go to bed and they’re just going round and round. It’s really annoying, and I need to sometimes just read the paper or a book or watch something to, like, try to flush that out of my head. I’ve woken up with the same melodies going around and around and around.

Do you dream about music?

PEMBERTON I’ve dreamt one theme.

GIACCHINO That’s a good question. I don’t know. If I have, I haven’t remembered it.

BURWELL It’s happened sometimes. It’s usually not a good thing. (Laughs.)

JOHANNSSON It’s always a little bit better in the dream. It’s happened to me a couple of times but, yeah, they turned out to be disappointing. They were much better when I was dreaming.

GREGSON-WILLIAMS The key to all of it is balance, and I think that’s something we find as we go along.

Johannsson and Gregson-Williams

You didn’t have that balance in the beginning though, right?

GREGSON-WILLIAMS I didn’t, no. But I was up for the challenge, and I think in the beginning, one sets out on a path of trying to score anything. I’m more choosy now. I’d like to do fewer films and do them better.

BURWELL Before I had kids, [the] full immersion thing was a joy, I’d have to say. One of the fun things I like about it is living in the film. … I really did enjoy that. But if you want to have a family, unfortunately, it’s not really possible.

What happens if you write something that isn’t working? Is it hard to let it go?

PEMBERTON Being a composer is about being able to do stuff and throw it away. Give it everything you’ve got and then go, “OK, that’s not right.”

BURWELL It’s so hard because you throw your heart into it, right?

GIACCHINO I love deleting. “This sucks, get it outta here.”

GREGSON-WILLIAMS I think we probably all recognize something that’s not really the best that we can do or not suitable for the film. I think we’re pretty quick to latch onto that.

GIACCHINO And hopefully you hit those things prior to even showing it to anyone.

BURWELL You have to be willing and even happy to throw things away. Absolutely.

PEMBERTON I tried to do a thing on Steve Jobs in the very beginning with the startup sound, the era sound of a 1984 Apple Mac. Just the “eh” noise. I wrote this whole piece with it. And they were like, “That’s just crap.” I wanted to be clever, and as soon as they said that, I was like, “Actually, you know what? That was a really stupid idea.” You’ve got to not be worried about failing.

GIACCHINO It’s really true.