Backlot: Cue the Strings
The composers of 10 Oscar-contending scores weigh in on severed arms, panicked directors and pop influences.
The Social Network
Composers: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Director: David Fincher
Logline: Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s head
(Reznor): We wanted a synthetic element to it per David’s request, but we wanted an element of humanity in there, and that echoed my feelings of Zuckerberg through this picture, who is in pursuit of this idea that’s greater than him. There’s a frailty and a vulnerability, and there’s a real sense of being an asshole as well. So we translated that into using an acoustic piano for melody to center things and dropped it down into a landscape percolating and fraying around the edges with electronics, and used that as a starting point.
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Director: Danny Boyle
Logline: Alternately serene and rocking farewell to arms
Even though I’d read the script, when I finally saw the arm-cutting scene the first time, I didn’t think I’d be able to watch it again. But then I wound up watching it almost 40 or 50 times more after that because we needed to work with the score, and every time I watched the breaking of the bone I would just go, “Aaagh!” and cover my face. We had to be very, very careful about what the music had to do next. We didn’t want to drive people off, and we wanted to try to be meditative and get them into what he was doing.
Alice in Wonderland
Composer: Danny Elfman
Director: Tim Burton
Logline: Rousing musical jabberwocky
Of all the films I’ve done with Tim, the hardest ones have been Batman, Big Fish and this. I’m very empathetic toward Tim after all these years and his intensity and edginess about the whole process, and so much of the film was unfinished while we worked. I had to work hard not to be in a similar state of panic and be a counterpoint to that. I still felt his pain, but I kept myself removed from it so I could keep working.
The King’s Speech
The Weinstein Co.
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Director: Tom Hooper
Logline: The piano as a charming stutterer
The main challenge was to find an element that could follow this main character who is stammering and find something in the music to express that. Since the piano became a main element in the score, I suggested that the piano would repeat one note over and over with a rhythm, almost like a funeral march. You have this repeating motif like something hesitating that can’t find its way out, like he does when he wants to speak.
Composer: Carter Burwell
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Logline: A Western hymn to girl power
One of the things music in the film can do is play the character of this 14-year-old girl who drives the whole story. We thought, “Where would you get this sort of irrational self-confidence that she had?” The Coens suggested this hymn that plays over the main titles called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” They knew it from [1955’s] The Night of the Hunter. The best idea seemed to be solo piano and then a massive response from the orchestra. I thought that would also play well with the story about a girl out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by bad people and this huge landscape.
How to Train Your Dragon
Composer: John Powell
Directors: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Logline: Celtic mayhem meets indie rock
The moment I took an unusual sort of approach was for the first flying scene. I’d been listening to some Arcade Fire and I just loved it, and that was very much the inspiration for that cue. When I finally got this mix of real heavy guitars and even some pipes in there, it became this great big kind of thundering, weighty rock track. Everyone liked it immediately.
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Director: Christopher Nolan
Logline: Throbbing musical dreamscape
I felt there was a very serious nostalgic quality about the whole script and the feeling of the characters. So I was trying to figure out how to reinvent a whole nostalgic kind of language that comes from the ’40s, the ’50s and the ’60s, and the string writing was very much that: big, moody, tragic chords. Part of our research was movies of a certain era; we talked a lot about Nic Roeg movies, James Bond movies. The huge advantage I had was there was a particular Nic Roeg movie — [1985’s] Insignificance — that he liked and a particular sequence from that he liked, and I could turn around to him and tell him, “Well, I actually wrote that score.”
Composer: Elliot Goldenthal
Director: Julie Taymor
Logline: Rock opera meets Shakespeare
We discussed a timeless sense of the music and being in no particular period. It’s composed with orchestra, strings and lots of amplified guitars. Being that there were six or seven songs Shakespeare specifically called for, there’s something logical about the leap between Shakespeare’s contemporary instrument, the lute, and modern guitar — acoustic or electric. It’s a very similar approach.
Composers: Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley
Director: Ben Affleck
Logline: A wistful theme for conflicted bank robbers
(Gregson-Williams): You first hear this melody in a really cool montage that leads up to Ben Affleck’s character, Doug, walking into an AA meeting. This is thematic material concerning Ben’s voyage, really. We don’t use that melody too often, but when it comes, it should register with the audience. I think mostly we’re looking at what was happening to him and his emotional arc — where he starts out and where he gets to by the end of the film — and the way he finds salvation in this girl who he trusts. That’s where we dug in at first.
(Buckley): I remember Ben picking up a guitar and trying to play something that we had played for him, which was nice. It showed a kind of enthusiasm and taking it onboard.
Waiting for Superman
Composer: Christophe Beck
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Logline: Doc music that’s all class
The film all leads up to this climactic sequence at the end, where you see each kid as they attend the lottery where they determine who gets to go to these charter schools. That was a tricky cue. In fact, it screened at Sundance with one version of the cue, then after we came back and got ready for the theatrical release six months later, we reopened discussion of that cue, and I rewrote it. It’s very easy to be manipulative in a movie like this, so a little goes a long way.
MUSIC AND LYRICS: The backstory on five original songs you might be humming on Oscar night
Tangled — “I See the Light”
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
“I tried a grand power ballad, then a folk song. I came up with 10 styles, and then Glenn and I had a good idea of what we wanted. It’s a real Disney moment. When I saw the sequence, I was knocked out.”
Burlesque — “You Haven’t seen the Last of Me”
Music and lyrics: Diane Warren
“Director Steve Antin rejected it multiple times. When Cher heard it, she insisted it be included. I’d hate to be on the other side of an argument with her. She’s pretty formidable.”
Waiting for Superman — “Shine”
Music and lyrics: John Legend
“I sent director Davis Guggenheim a demo, something I call a ‘mumble track.’ Just me at the piano playing chords and mumbling sounds to indicate the melody. He liked what he heard.”
Country Strong — “Coming Home”
Music and lyrics: Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges
“We didn’t get many notes. The song had to be called ‘Coming Home,’ and later they asked us to add a bridge. It’s a little easier to write this way; you get more parameters.”
127 hours — “If I Rise”
Music: A.R. Rahman
Lyrics: Dido & Rollo Armstrong
“We started the song as score; the lyrics would have been too distracting. I brought Dido in because I thought her voice would sound perfect. It gives the music the uplift it needed.”