The Academy take note

Best original song and score nominees discuss the inspirations, challenges and rewards of writing some of this year's most unforgettable film music.

After 2006's Oscar music nominations cast a net that seemed to encircle the planet, leaving John Williams as the sole domestic representative of film music, this year American composers have reasserted themselves. The field includes two first-time nominees (Javier Navarrete and Alexandre Desplat), the return of last year's winner (Gustavo Santaolalla) and two bold efforts from a couple of veterans (Thomas Newman and Philip Glass) that disprove the old adage that the best film music is the kind you don't notice.

In the best song category, with the exception of Randy Newman, this year's list of contenders is filled with newcomers. And though the song category is back to having five nominees -- up from three last year -- there are still only three films to consider, since three of the four new songs written for Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls," the big-screen adaptation of Henry Krieger's Broadway musical, are pitted against one another. Melissa Etheridge could make history if her contribution to Davis Guggenheim's Paramount Vantage documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" wins (her song "I Need to Wake Up" is the first from a docu to be nominated). But don't count out perennial Oscar favorite Newman, whose toe-tapping ditty from Buena Vista's Pixar release "Cars" could accelerate into the winner's circle come Oscar night.

We asked each of the nominated composers and songwriters about the creative processes behind the year's most Oscar-worthy film music.

Best Original Score

Babel (Paramount Vantage)

The challenge: "For me, this is part of a trilogy with (2001's) 'Amores Perros' and (2003's) '21 Grams,' and I know there are certain parallels in the way of narrating these three movies -- that they are different stories entwined. In the case of 'Babel,' what was different was that the movie took place in such different geographic areas of the world, and they're such colorful places in their own way -- Morocco, Tokyo .... I think the challenge for us was to create global music that didn't particularly reflect one of the areas of the world but had a global feeling."

Signature cue: "I think the first piece that appears in the movie, which is an oud piece, reflects the spirit of the score. I also experimented with something that I found interesting that I want to do in other movies: I worked with pure sine waves, an electronic sound that was used in early electronic music. Nowadays, with synthesizers, they have sounds that are composed by things that create harmonics and different effects, but pure sine waves have no harmonics, so they almost have a psychoacoustic effect. I use that quite a bit in the score, so that's another trademark of the score."

The nom: "I feel blessed. Just to be nominated is amazing, but to be nominated two years in a row and after winning last year is like a dream to me."

The Good German (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The challenge: "I wanted to be true to the style of the movie and at the same time be dramatically accommodating, and I wanted to make sure that the style didn't get in the way of the drama and call attention to itself, even though there was going to be a truly defined period style to the music."

Signature cue: "In the case of the main title, there's an overturelike quality, so it includes several of the main themes -- so, I would say the opening and the closing as well."

The nom: "I'm really honored that people responded to it because how many people saw the movie? I was very pleased that it happened; it's better to assume you're not going to be nominated because it's better to not live your life crossing your fingers for things and hoping. I stand behind the music, so I was curious as to what would be nominated, but I didn't expect it. When I ponder on it, I think that people really must have responded to the music, and that's always a great thing to think about."

Notes on a Scandal (Fox Searchlight)

The challenge: "The film is about the gradual but dramatic revelation of who the Barbara (Judi Dench) character is. At the beginning of the film, you see an elderly, spinsterish, intellectual kind of person, kind of benign, and by the end of the film we realize she's a spinster from hell. The trajectory of the film is the revelation of who she is, and secondarily, who Sheba (Cate Blanchett) is. This is a score which is driven by character -- unlike (2002's) 'The Hours,' which was really driven by structure; this one is about the inner workings of these people. I spent a lot of time with the picture. For example, the first scene, where Barbara's sitting on the bench -- we have music for a character we don't know yet, so we want her to be sympathetic and interesting, but at the same time we want to hint that there's something hidden and dangerous about her character."

Signature cue: "There's music associated with Barbara that you hear right at the beginning -- it's strings with an oboe -- and you hear it come up at different times. And as it comes up again, it begins to change. At the beginning, it's a very melodic piece of music which has a kind of strange harmony to it, and you might not think about it, but it makes you wonder who the character is ...."

The nom: "This is my third nomination, and I must say, these are not mainstream movies the way (Paramount/DreamWorks') 'Dreamgirls' or even (Miramax's) 'The Queen' might be, but they're movies of tremendous emotional power and aesthetic aspiration. The thing about this business is, this is a form of theater that has a possibility of both commercial impact and artistic resolution. In that way, we can say that film in my mind is very much like opera, where art and entertainment come together. If (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart had been living today, he would have done 'The Magic Flute' as a film."

Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse)

The challenge: "I think the biggest thing was to translate the emotions of the story, which was concentrated on the character of Ofelia, and all around her is this world of fantasy and fears and also hopes, and the emotional aspect of that was the big challenge."

Signature cue: "I think (it is) every time the lullaby appears, which is sung two or three times. The first time, we don't understand it very well, and there are also two or three literal instrumental versions, which are very important and occur at important places in the film. (Writer-director) Guillermo (del Toro) had the idea of the lullaby in the script from the beginning, and I did two versions. One was more like Spanish folk music. We liked the first attempt, but I rewrote it, and that was the version we used."

The nom: "I'm completely surprised -- everybody says that, but I went to L.A. two weeks before the nomination to look into doing other scores, but not for a moment did I imagine this could happen with this score, so I'm very surprised and very happy."

The Queen (Miramax)

The challenge: "There were three challenges, I think: One was the time in which I had to write, which was very short -- two or three weeks altogether. The second was not to be impressed and be completely devastated by working with Stephen Frears, who I admired so much, and No. 3 was to try and link all the different pieces of the puzzle of the story, (to) create a thread in the music that would accomplish several goals. I had to score the witty comedy, the tragedy and the suspenseful drama -- how do you do that with just one score?"

Signature cue: "(This would be) the one I played on Diana's accident. It starts on Tony Blair's first appearance in the streets -- the footage of Tony Blair's car going through the city -- and then there's footage of Diana, and it ends on Diana's accident. That's the main cue, which has almost all the colors of the score in it."

The nom: "I got a great sense of pleasure and a great smile from it. One of my idols is John Williams. He got the Golden Globe last year, and I was in the audience clapping my hands in his honor. I got the Golden Globe this year, and last year he was also at the Oscars .... The idea of being in the same room with the master is a dream and a completion of something that's amazing for a (French) composer who's always had an eye or an ear into the American movie composers."

Best Original Song

"I Need to Wake Up"
from "An Inconvenient Truth " (Paramount Vantage)
Music and lyrics by Melissa Etheridge; performed by Melissa Etheridge

Writing an effective original song: "(An original song) should add to a certain emotion or understanding of the film. You get the song that can stand up perfectly by itself, but when you apply it to a film, it adds to the emotional experience. Harry Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin" from 1969's 'Midnight Cowboy' is a perfect example of that."

The message in the music: "After seeing such a moving film, it was my job to get them out of the movie theater. So, I took that moment and drew from my own emotional frame of mind and said, 'I need to move. I need to wake up. I am not an island. I am not alone (on this planet). I am my intentions. The 30 years I've been driving my car on petrol/dinosaur bones, I've been asleep.'"

The nom: "I would be lying if I said I didn't lose sleep over the prospect of being nominated. I grew up in the in the Midwest watching the Academy Awards every year, and it was the highlight of my adolescence -- watching the stars and the films that had such an impact upon our society, and to be a part of that is the zenith of my life and what I work for."

from "Dreamgirls" (Paramount/DreamWorks)
Music by Henry Krieger and Scott Cutler, lyrics by Anne Preven; performed by Beyonce

Writing an effective original song: "A good movie song either illustrates what's inside a character's head at a crucial moment or it creates a mood that helps draw the audience into the story. I think a great movie song does both," Preven says.

The message in the music: "The message is right there in the title: Listen! Listen to your inner voice," Preven says. "It's Deena's (Beyonce Knowles) declaration of independence. Until this point in the story, she has been an object that is adored and manipulated by Curtis (Jamie Foxx). Her opinions and feelings are unheard, and in the scene just before she sings the song, she realizes she has become a stranger in her own life. By the end of the song, she summons the strength to take control of her life and to leave Curtis."

The nom: "I slept very badly the night before and woke up a bit confused about what day it was," Cutler says. "It was 5:30 a.m. I turned on my computer and saw Anne online, so I IM'd her to see if she had any news. She didn't, but we chatted online for about 20 minutes before my phone rang, and it was this sweet guy from MTV who had interviewed us a few days earlier and had promised to call from the press conference only if there was some exciting news to report. I was ecstatic and IM'd Anne that we had received a nomination."

"Love You I Do"
from "Dreamgirls"
Music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Siedah Garrett; performed by Jennifer Hudson

Writing an effective original song: "The song was very scene-specific and had to lyrically convey, until then, unspoken emotions from her character for his," Garrett says. "I love the catchy melody and the fact that musically, it had to sound like a song of that time."

The message in the music: "The message is simple: It's a love song," Garrett says. "It's a cute little ditty about new and budding love. It's about a girl who loves a boy and wants a subtle way to let him know how she feels without her having to come right out and say it."

The nom: "When I found out I was nomin-ated, I think I let out a scream that could be heard 'round the world!" Garrett says. "I didn't really keep up with when the announcements were going to be made, and I woke that morning to a slew of congratulatory phone messages. My machine was full! It was exceptionally rewarding because I'd had an especially depressing Monday the day before, and Tuesday morning, all was well again. As the old song goes, 'What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours!'"

"Our Town"
from "Cars" (Buena Vista)
Music and lyrics by Randy Newman; performed by James Taylor

Writing an effective original song: "The song should help the film. Sometimes, songs can express something emotionally that can't be expressed as effectively with dialogue or action. The best movie songs often do something important to extend the emotional range of a picture. 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' is a classic example."

The message in the music: "The song is about a town and its citizens and what happened to them when they were bypassed by a new highway. The town was alive -- was on the 'mother road' as they called it, Route 66 -- and every day, the world came to them. It all ended with the institution of the transcontinental highway system."

The nom: "I was honored. I didn't expect it."

from "Dreamgirls"
Music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Willie Reale; performed by Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose and Keith Robinson

The message in the music: "Well, the message of 'Patience' is pretty clear," Reale says. "It is a song in which one generation of African-Americans counsels patience to the next generation in the struggle for justice and equality. The irony and shame is that this film is set 40 years ago and that two generations later, the same advice applies. I am thinking especially about the victims of (Hurricane) Katrina. Had a Category 5 storm hit, say, Orange County, I venture that the rescue and relief efforts would have been more vigorous. Anyway, one of the central themes of the film is racial inequality, and 'Patience' offers the 'change through peaceful resistance' perspective. Bill Condon uses the song so beautifully. He creates a poignant backdrop for the Detroit riots while simultaneously using its rejection as a turning point in the Eddie Murphy character's descent into drugs and seeding Keith Robinson's character's ultimate break from Jamie Foxx's character."

The nom: "The morning of the announcement I slept in a little later with my German shepherd, Ms. Rose, and we waited to hear the phone ring -- to hear congrats or sorry," Krieger says. "We thought, 'Let's not buy into the nervous hysteria, and let's just go with the flow.' Then (writer-director) Bill (Condon) called me from London and just went on and on about how happy he was. And it's just been a nonstop cavalcade of warm congrats. My only regret is that Bill or the movie didn't receive a nom."