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Composer Roundtable: 6 Contenders on Film Music’s Lack of Women, Working All-Nighters and How They’d Score the Election

Lesley Barber ('Manchester by the Sea'), Nicholas Britell ('Moonlight'), John Debney ('The Jungle Book), Hauschka ('Lion'), Justin Hurwitz ('La La Land') and Hans Zimmer ('Hidden Figures') sat down for a discussion about their work process, the music that inspires them and why they never see their families (even working out of studios in their own homes!).

America did not elect its first female president Nov. 8. But less than 24 hours after Election Day, THR‘s annual Composer Roundtable managed to assist in the breaking of one glass ceiling: For the first time in its eight-year history, the roundtable included a female panelist. “I think there maybe has been an unconscious bias [against women],” said Lesley Barber, 54, who wrote the evocative score for Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed indie drama Manchester by the Sea. Barber was joined by Nicholas Britell, 36 (Moonlight); John Debney, 59 (The Jungle Book); Hauschka, 50 (Lion); Justin Hurwitz, 31 (La La Land); and Hans Zimmer, 59 (Hidden Figures) at The Sayers Club in Hollywood, ostensibly to talk about music. But in contrast to the nightclub setting — and a full bar, which no one went near — the election results set an unmistakably sober tone early on. Once the subject turned to music, however, current events were pushed aside and the conversation quickly became a lively mix of debate (how does music work?), trading notes on work habits (composers are nocturnal animals) and their unabashed fanboy (and girl) love of film music.

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If you were going to write a score about the election, what would it sound like?

JOHN DEBNEY It would be a tough one because it’s so emotional right now for most everyone I know. It would start out sort of sad and dirgelike. But I think it would ultimately be joyful at the end, knowing that we all are going to be OK and we’ve got to come together.

LESLEY BARBER I would write a piece that has a sinking feeling in it, and I would start off [with the] idea of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” maybe the second movement. Something that just opens up the harmonic spectrum until you really don’t know where you are anymore.


HAUSCHKA I have the feeling that it’s quite good to have a kind of melancholic element in the score because I feel like in the melancholy, there’s also a deep feeling of yourself, connecting you with the circumstances.

JUSTIN HURWITZ I’d go with the John Cage silence thing. I’m still processing it.

HANS ZIMMER I think there’s a scream that happened that none of us heard. There was a silent scream. And I would want to go around the country and write a vocal piece but get everybody involved. Let that scream out. Let these voices be heard and let us listen to it.

NICHOLAS BRITELL So much of writing film music is taking your internal feelings and trying to translate those. I feel sort of dazed and a little bewildered today. And my musical translation of that might be some low strings. But there would have to be some atonality on top of that.

This is the first time in the eight years we’ve been doing the composer roundtable that we’ve had a woman panelist. Why isn’t there more diversity in the world of film composing?

BARBER I think there maybe has been an unconscious bias in that there’s a visual image of what a composer looks like that’s probably based on our experience of music as a kid. You know, the portraits of composers. And the more visible diversity that we have, [the more] people will start to change the way that they’re viewing their image of what a composer looks like.

ZIMMER I am one of three composers [on Hidden Figures]. Pharrell Williams, Ben Wallfisch and I have been working on this movie, which is about these black female mathematicians at NASA. And Pharrell was telling me about the story for years, and I’m just happy it got made. But what was so interesting was that there was no music that could describe that because all the music that we film composers think of about space, like The Right Stuff, it’s white. It’s male. Of course there are female film composers. There are amazing female scientists and mathematicians. And there’s an enormous amount of diversity. It’s just, we don’t know about it. And if we could do anything right now, then this is the right time to go and throw a spotlight onto this.

BRITELL There are so many incredible voices out there that I think have a difficult time figuring out how to actually get into the industry. It’s an amazing thing to be able to write music for films. But also it’s kind of a mysterious process to figure out how you actually get to write music for a movie. And I think there’s still probably a huge amount that could be done in the way of providing further resources to introduce people to this industry.

BARBER If there’s a producer producing something and a list of possible composers comes to them, if the list doesn’t have diversity, then somebody has to be asked why, in 2016, there just isn’t a little more diversity there. Because it freshens the whole voice of cinematic writing to have different voices and to listen to each other and to broaden the kind of music that brings a new energy to storytelling. So it starts with who is imaginable in that role.

HAUSCHKA Every year, I organize a festival in Dusseldorf, which is circling around pianists who are doing experimental music, and composers. And every year it’s very hard to find women for the program. This year, for example, I think we have five [women], which is nearly half of it. And I really investigated a little bit more deeply [to find them].

ZIMMER One of the things I love about being in music is that we do have diversity. We don’t care where you’re from, who you are. You’re either in the band because you move me with your playing or you’re not.

DEBNEY That’s the wonderful thing. You’re right, Hans. It’s a wonderful discovery when you’re jamming for the first time with somebody you’ve never played with and they just blow your mind. It’s very democratic: If you can play, that’s all that matters.

When you’re composing, how do you know that the music is going to work?

HURWITZ I try to just compose what is emotionally honest for what’s in the story and what’s on the screen. We’re obviously working for the writer and/or director’s vision as well as responding to the performance that the actors are giving, the color onscreen, the cinematography, all of it. The three movies I’ve done have been with Damien Chazelle, and they’ve all been very emotionally charged movies, and I’m just trying to do service to the story and the emotion that he’s laying out for me. If I’m being honest, I’m not pushing anything too far, I’m not trying to make it sadder than it wants to be, I’m not trying to make it happier than it wants to be. Then I think it works. That’s the hope.

BRITELL There’s also a musical exploration that goes on in every film where, at the very beginning, you don’t really know what’s going to work. There’s a certain level of faith or hope or prayer that what you feel will translate. The key to that, at least for me, it’s working with the director, being in the same room and having that kind of artistic collaboration. One of the nice things is having those conversations where it’s actually not musical terms we’re talking about. It’s actually, what are you feeling? What could we feel here? That’s really where the joy comes into the process because it’s mysterious, and that’s very exciting because when it works, you do feel it and other people hopefully feel that.


ZIMMER The part of what I love about it is it’s indefensible. I can’t go and talk you into liking a piece of music. And going back to the politics we’ve just witnessed, everybody seems to be able to have an opinion and defend their point of view. You can’t do that with music. It either touches you or it doesn’t. We write from a personal point of view. The cliche is, I write from the heart. I mean, I’m the least musically educated person at this table right now. I have no idea where it comes from. It’s like I’m hanging on for dear life, hoping they’re not going to switch off the tap.

BARBER It’s interesting, too, when I started out scoring films, I would come into it more with a schematic or with an idea of how I was going to take the emotions and project them into sort of a musical voice. But now, even in the middle of the night, if I get an idea — and it sounds almost naive — I go and I write it down immediately because there’s just something so direct and so intuitive that capturing it quite often ends up being the right idea.

ZIMMER God, I’m terrible because I don’t write it down because I think if I can’t remember it, it can’t have been any good.

BRITELL If it was so good, then it proves itself.

ZIMMER And I can never remember.

HAUSCHKA Sometimes I am just letting the film run and I’m recording a piano score to it, just to get a feeling for myself. So I can actually go back and listen and say, man, this was something that you just played along to some scenes and you were touched by that. And sometimes it’s totally not the right thing, but at least I have an initial statement.

BARBER And we’re dramatists as well. When I read Harriet the Spy when I was a kid, I became Harriet the Spy for a week. With Manchester by the Sea, I became Lee Chandler while I was working on it. And you’re figuring out what’s at stake for that character, what are they longing for, what would they be longing for if they had that level of consciousness, and at what points did the glimmers of light for their own story and journey start to become stronger? And so it’s really identity with the characters and the essence of what’s going on in the story.

BRITELL Going back to the different voice and the uniqueness of that, there’s something to be said for the uniqueness of different musicians and the sounds that they create. I’ve been working with a violinist named Tim Fain, who is amazing. And he recorded on Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave. There’s a color of the sound that he generates. I always say to him that the violin notes feel thicker or something when he plays them. That’s as much a part of the music as the notes themselves.

ZIMMER That’s what we do. We cast our musicians. We cast our collaborators. And the thing I actually love doing is having the director be part of the band. He doesn’t have to play, but he needs to be in the room when we make the music. Or when I write. My process is so turned upside-down these days, where I start writing way, way, way ahead, before they start shooting the picture, and spend as much time as I can with the director in the room. But I want to know everybody in this orchestra and I want to know what their sound is and I want to know why they’re playing the note. Because the thing that happens to me is, when you have a big orchestra sitting there, it’s not the guy that plays the wrong note that my ear goes to, it’s the guy who plays indifferently. Quietly, indifferently.

You can hear that?

DEBNEY You know immediately if they’re not with you.

ZIMMER Maybe that’s why this orchestra just now of 70 percent, 80 percent women, many African-Americans in it, sounded so good, because they knew what they were playing about, because this was a movie about them. So there was purpose there.

BRITELL [On Moonlight] we wanted the world to be the score. When I first saw the early cuts and read the screenplay, the word that came to me was poetry, where it just felt like there was this sort of tenderness and intimacy and sensitivity in the film. And I tried to figure out, “What is the musical analog of that? What is the sound of poetry?” I wrote a piece of music that I sent to Barry, and I called it “Piano and Violin Poem,” because I was trying to channel this idea of poetry. And that became the main character’s theme, which evolves throughout the film. It’s a very nonlinear process.

Do you play live for your directors?

ZIMMER Depends. I remember I had an idea and I phoned Chris Nolan. I played it on the piano and he’s going yeah, yeah, that’s really good. And then two months later he said, whatever happened to that tune you played me? And I had worked on it for so long that the fact of just playing it to him on the phone seemed like, OK, I’m done now. I never recorded it that day. We found it again.

HURWITZ Sometimes [Damien] comes to the piano, but usually it’s me working at the piano by myself and then when I find something that I think is really good, I’ll record it and send it to him and he’ll say no. And then I’ll do that over and over and over and over and over again until he’s thinking, OK, that one is interesting but it still ends up being a no, and eventually there’s one he says I absolutely love that, that is the one. And we always start well before the movie starts. We start as early as possible because who knows how long it’s going to take to find those melodies. It can take a very, very long time until he believes that, OK, that’s a melody that’s going to stick. We score very melodically. Every cue, basically, needs to have melody in it. So it’s mostly me sending piano demos and then it usually happens when I’m at my most frustrated, we’ll sit at the piano and I’ll be like, “What are you looking for?”

So being pushed helps?

HURWITZ Oh God, yeah. He’s very, very demanding. But it’s great because I know I’m doing my best work for him. And I haven’t worked with another filmmaker yet, and part of what terrifies me the most is that I wouldn’t do my best work for somebody else.


What happens in a situation where you’re not getting what you need out of those conversations?

DEBNEY Well, the agent will call shortly thereafter. Yeah, I’m really not kidding. I’ve done enough work that you kind of know pretty quickly after the second or third meeting if it’s working or it’s not.

ZIMMER The only way Hollywood or film or anything can survive is if it encourages failure. There are people who are going to write checks for us having some really crazy ideas like doing a musical, right? And who are being swept along by the excitement of this and knowing it’s going to be dangerous and it’s going to be not what the polls say we should do. And we now found out how good the polling is. On Gladiator, Ridley, Pietro [Scalia], the editor, myself, we were obsessed with this shot that was in there and everybody kept telling us to take it out. Nobody got it. And we kept previewing this thing with this shot and then finally we took it out. And this wasn’t a cheap shot, either. And it took us a while to figure out the movie played a lot better without the thing in it. [It’s important] for people to have the confidence in you and support you as you’re heading down the wrong path for a while.

Ennio Morricone recently sued to get his music back after the copyright ran out. John, you wrote about this on Facebook.

DEBNEY I had heard there was a clause in certain contracts that after a certain period of time, I think it was a 25-year span on a work, depending on the wording of the contract, you can sue to get the rights back. I thought, how wonderful. I mean, if this works, if he’s successful, then to me it’s an interesting way for those of us that have done a certain amount of work over the years, looking back at 20 years, 25 years, to somehow regain some ownership.

ZIMMER But it’s different in Europe.

HAUSCHKA You get all of it.

ZIMMER Your copyright is your copyright. And by law, you can’t sell your copyright.

HAUSCHKA When I started my music career and had a contract with Sony Music, I remember there was this contract that actually everything I was doing was theirs for lifetime. I was thinking, lifetime? I mean, in 60 years, I don’t know where I am. At that point I wasn’t strong enough or conscious enough to say no.

DEBNEY A lot of the independent world works this way. I’ve had plenty of experience where you work your heart out on what you consider a beautiful little film, and let’s say it doesn’t even get a release, and then the next thing you know the rights are sold to some other company and you really don’t have much of a say at all.

ZIMMER You have no say. I’m not going to say which film, but I have one contract which is in perpetuity minus one day. And it was just the principle. I wasn’t going to give it to them forever. I just wanted to claw something back.

BARBER I do think on the medium-sized, sort of independent films, if you do have some ownership of the music, it helps you take more entrepreneurial choices with the scope of your scoring. You’re going to see the financial part of it further down. So you might do an extra session or you might bring in a player on a very specific instrument. Because you know that you have a little more ownership in the success of that score.

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re not working?

HURWITZ In the car I listen to pop radio, like, the hits or ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s Sirius stations. I get in a decade for a while and I listen to that.

DEBNEY The big four. I say there’s no truth but Mozart or Beethoven. If you want to know where truth is, you listen to Mozart or Beethoven or Bach. And what’s the fourth one?

ZIMMER The Beatles.

DEBNEY There we go. That’s a good fourth. Or talk radio, for me.

BRITELL I love Mozart and Bach and Schumann but I listen to a lot of old-school hip-hop. I love Gang Starr.

HAUSCHKA Same here. I was in a hip-hop band in the ’90s where I was rapping and I was completely into break-dancing.

BARBER I love hip-hop and R&B and I really like listening to old music. I love listening to old soundtracks. Like Shaft and some of these amazingly beautiful scores that just are so inspiring.

So did Shaft influence Manchester by the Sea?

BARBER I was listening to Shaft a lot while I was working on Manchester by the Sea, but I think it was more just admiring the intensity of the purpose and how beautifully everything’s put together, how fabulous the production is and how it just so fits the film.

What are some of your favorite pieces of film music?

BRITELL I was watching Taxi Driver recently and I think that Bernard Hermann score is just mind-blowing. I just love it. It’s got this darkness, but this rich jazz. There’s this incredible range of rich horns and the saxophone.

ZIMMER Amazing harmony.

BRITELL You have a sense of the whole emotional character right away.

BARBER If I just want to revisit a score to inspire me, late at night I’ll watch Blade Runner. Just the impact of the music and the strength of the score and that it’s coming from such a different place.

HAUSCHKA I’m a big fan of very opulent scores, but at the same time, I need sometimes a score like Under My Skin [that] erases all my memory. So I’m suddenly feeling cleared. When you go to your work, you drive always the same way. And in the backyard of your office or of your studio, a beautiful cafe has opened, but you never see it because you always drive the same way. But then suddenly there’s road works, and you go the other way, and you discover this whole area in the back of your office. So I see my work in a way like that. I have to find blockades to actually move the easiest way. Like taping a whole octave on the piano.

BRITELL I’ve actually read that Stravinsky used to do that, apparently, where he would go to the piano and he would just sort of drop his hands down and wherever they landed, he would try to figure out a way out of it.


HURWITZ Some of the biggest inspiration for me and some of my favorite scores ever are the Charlie Chaplin scores. I would put him in my top five film composers of all time. Every movie [has] a handful of completely unforgettable melodies. I just recently watched City Lights for the millionth time and [it has] such tuneful, emotional melodies, gorgeous arrangements.

BRITELL Chariots of Fire is the one that got me, I heard it when I was 5 and I wanted to play the piano beat.

ZIMMER Once Upon a Time in America. It’s a gangster movie with not a single fast piece of music in it. Andy Nelson, the great dubbing engineer, pointed this one out to me. How come you can recognize an Ennio Morricone score on the first note? The way he gets the players on the first note to have all the intent and you just want to die with envy, how he can do that.

DEBNEY I’m going to go old-school on you guys. It’s not that old, but I’m going to go John Williams, Star Wars, 1977. I remember hearing that for the first time on some big, badass speakers. Like, some big Voice of the Theater. And I’ll never forget it. I had never heard that kind of power.

BARBER It’s very strange, but a score that haunted me and really got me interested in scoring was the Barry Lyndon score, which in some ways doesn’t have a lot of original music in it. But there’s some signature themes there that just have stayed in my head forever. It’s all classical. It’s the arrangement that’s quite different.

What kind of hours do you keep?

ZIMMER Is there anybody here who doesn’t work completely stupid hours?

BARBER All-nighters. We all conduct after no sleep.

BRITELL I like working into the night. I don’t really leave my studio much. And we were joking before, I take a lot of vitamin D because I don’t get much sunlight. So I’m sort of in my cave.

BARBER We all have good skin.

HURWITZ When I’m in the middle of it, I’ll go to bed at 4, 4:30 at night and sleep as late as I can.

DEBNEY I must be the weird one here because I like to get in early, then at 4 [p.m.], I like to go to the gym and box for an hour, and then I like to go see my grandson, the love of my life.

BRITELL So you have a schedule? Because I don’t feel I have a regular schedule.

DEBNEY I try. But we know it sometimes doesn’t work that way. But yeah, I don’t love being in the studio by myself. So I kind of want to force myself to get in there and get as much done as I can and get the hell out of there.


How do your schedules affect your families?

BARBER As a single mom, I decided when I moved to my new place, which is a brownstone, to devote a whole floor to my studio. And so I can record ensembles in there. All my beautiful mics are set up, so if I want to write, I can write. And the house has been organized totally around my creative life. I find that that’s actually turned out to be the best thing that I could have done. It works great.

HAUSCHKA Yeah, same for me. I have a studio in the house with my three kids and my family, and the only time I can meet them is at lunch.

ZIMMER My children all grew up in the studio. I was thinking about this during a huge orchestra session, “If something happens to my engineer right now, any one of my kids could walk over and probably engineer the session.”

A version of this story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.