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When composer Harry Gregson-Williams begins a collaboration with director Ridley Scott, he’ll usually leave their first meeting with a set of questions instead of a list of demands.
“Ridley is an ideas man,” says Gregson-Williams, who has worked with the veteran director on five films: 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, 2012’s Prometheus, 2015’s The Martian and this year’s The Last Duel and House of Gucci. “When I’ve come onto his projects, he’s already painted most of his picture. He certainly knows the power of music and is ready to employ it, and it’s very refreshing to have him pose multiple questions to me rather than dictate the direction that the score should go.”
For 20th Century’s The Last Duel, Gregson-Williams had the benefit of a 14th century setting to guide his score as well as the narrative that builds to the titular event at the end of the film. “Ridley wanted the battle scenes to be harsh, visual [sequences] — he wanted to go with the sound effects of horses snorting and swords clashing,” he says. Gregson-Williams’ task was to score the events leading up to the judicial duel between Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, who challenge each other to the death after de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of rape.
The composer first considered medieval instruments in an attempt to bring historical authenticity to the score, but he quickly realized that would limit his ability to move the film’s story forward, especially through the three conflicting narratives told Rashomon-style from the perspectives of de Carrouges, Le Gris and Marguerite. “I used a consort of viols — forerunners to the violin and cello — which have an edgy sound and bring to mind early music, although they weren’t developed by the time this film was set,” he explains. Also useful were woodwinds such as lutes and gossamers, which he layered over a “decent-sized orchestra.”
The main essence of the score was to be a vocal element. Unlike the 12th century-set Kingdom of Heaven, which employed more than 100 members of London’s Bach Choir, Gregson-Williams went with the more intimate group called VOCES8 — which, as the choir’s name suggests, is a group of eight vocalists. To lead the vocal arrangement, Gregson-Williams tapped English soprano Grace Davidson. “She sings not in an operatic way but with quite little vibrato, which I really liked,” he says. “It’s very direct — an intimate sound that’s very pristine.”
While Davidson performed variations of French love songs (chansons d’amour) to provide Marguerite’s theme, countertenor Iestyn Davies offered a “very unusual and haunting” vocal to underscore the character of Jacques Le Gris. “I integrated that with some moody orchestral textures and gentle synthesizers … for this dark and imposing music that I wanted to surround Jacques with, particularly in the third act.”
While Gregson-Williams was finishing his score, Scott reached out with another job: his stylish crime drama House of Gucci. That film is set in the late ’70s through the mid ’90s, and Scott intended to stuff the soundtrack with needle-drops. Gregson-Williams’ role was to establish the romance between Adam Driver’s Maurizio Gucci and Lady Gaga’s Patrizia Reggiani. “It was unlike any other score I’ve done,” he says, noting that much of his music would tee up the pop songs that Scott knew he wanted in the film. “That was a huge challenge for me, and it was great fun. And you know, if you’ve seen the film, it’s a wild ride.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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