How James Newton Howard Composed for a "Broken" Landscape in 'News of the World'

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in 'News of the World.'
Courtesy of Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in 'News of the World.'

For Universal's Tom Hanks starrer, the composer took a less-is-more approach for the post-Civil War drama.

Eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard, whose projects have ranged from My Best Friend's Wedding to multiple Batman films and the Hunger Games series, added a Western to his extensive résumé in 2020. The famed composer took on the score for Paul Greengrass' News of the World, which stars Tom Hanks as a Civil War vet transporting a young girl (Helena Zengel) cross-country to her family. Howard recently chatted with THR about creating a less-is-more sound, breaking out of his comfort zone and incorporating a Western landscape into his music.

What was your collaboration like with Paul Greengrass?

We had a very good collaboration. He had very strong opinions and definitely steered me into some places that I was not immediately comfortable with but inevitably made for an opportunity to really improve as a composer. In the end, we were both very much on the same page. It took a while to find the real voice in the score, but I think we got there.

What ideas did he steer you into?

He would say things to me like, "In this scene, I want you to write so little, you're going to feel like you wrote nothing." It's hard to do that because I am often critical of film music when it's just a big whole note that sits there for 90 seconds and doesn't do anything. In the end, I realized that what we were striving to get was a unique, singular voice for this movie. The way Paul described it was that the whole landscape, the country, everybody is broken in this movie, and how do we make the music sound broken? How do we give it that fragility, that feeling of unsureness? So we ended up working with a number of old instruments like cello d'amore, viola de gamba and gut-strings violins — they're all notoriously difficult to tune, but they're also a little harsh. Paul would call it our "broken consort," and so we had this group of musicians surrounded by a more traditional orchestra. It really did give it a unique feeling about it.

Did you take any inspiration from any classic Westerns?

I did, in the sense that one of your jobs as writing music for a Western is to try to describe the landscape. In this case, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for big huge themes. There were two or three moments — when they're going to Dallas, where you have Tom Hanks riding a horse across the landscape. Those are moments that you better seize on, and it better be good.

How do you feel that most people are going to watch this at home rather than in a theater?

Obviously, the thing to do is for everyone to stay home or mask up and get better and get this thing out of here. To say it's not slightly disappointing to see a movie as beautiful as this on a big screen — sure, there's some disappointment in that. But ultimately, the filmmaking process is the same for me, it's just as gratifying. Hopefully a lot of people will be able to see it in an environment where they feel safe because I would never encourage anybody to go to a theater right now, personally.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.