'The Martian' Composer on Creating Matt Damon's Theme, Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' Plans

Harry Gregson-Williams tells THR about helping to bring Mars' "mystery" to life through the score.

Harry Gregson-Williams wants Mars to intimidate viewers of The Martian — but not too much.

Gregson-Williams composed the score for the Matt Damon-starring sci-fi film, which hit theaters Oct. 2. The film continues a fruitful professional relationship for the composer and director Ridley Scott, with Gregson-Williams also having worked on music for Scott's films Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Prometheus (2012) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

In addition, Gregson-Williams composed the scores for all four Shrek films, numerous Tony Scott films (2004's Man on Fire, 2010's Unstoppable) and The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), which earned him a Golden Globe and Grammy nomination.

The prolific composer spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of creating the proper characterization for the planet Mars, the unique way that Scott offers suggestions and the director's hints about his forthcoming Prometheus sequel.

How did you get involved with the film?

Ridley called me after I had provided some music for his film last summer, Exodus. He called me and said, "Listen, you've got to read this script. I'm going to go straight into it." It helps when the writing is tight and innovative and the acting is immensely believable and the editing is so perfectly executed, so it's a charm working on a film where the moons seem to have aligned.

What was Ridley's involvement in the score, and does he offer ideas for what he wants it to sound like?

He does have ideas, but like many directors, we find a language to talk in that's not necessarily musical, although a lot of his terminology is based on art because he's an artist first and foremost — I think he paints a lot. So when he talks about tone and color and lightness and dark, he's probably got images in his mind as opposed to music in his mind, but it makes it very straightforward for me to interpret because art and music share this terminology. So he's quite specific about what he's looking for in a scene, but not necessarily musically specific. I came on early enough to be able to find a tone with him and then experiment a little. [This] being a Scott brother film, there's plenty of music.

Harry Gregson-Williams conducts the score of The Martian. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

What were some challenges that were unique to working on this project? 

First of all, geographically. Because we're on Mars for much of the much of the movie, we had to find a sound, and we had to find a character of Mars. Initially, we had thought that perhaps Mars would serve as kind of the monster, the bad guy — in the movie, there isn't really a bad guy. Then, we thought that actually that approach might be counter to what we were really after, which was to illustrate that Mars actually had this austerity to it, this mystery, and in many occasions, being around Mars was very calming and spacious. There are plenty of long notes in the score, and it's not in a hurry most of the time. There's always a hint of danger and malevolence because Mars will kill him if he puts a foot wrong, but in general we thought that a majesty would be more in tune with what we were after as a whole. 

What impacted your choices for instrumentation, and did you use many synth sounds?

It was always going to be a bit of a hybrid, this score. It may be epic and large in scale, the movie, but at its heart, it's about one guy's survival. When writing his theme, I found a more personal sound, something smaller, that would accompany a lot of his monologue, and it would require me to be bubbling around underneath it, and I found little arpeggiated synth sounds which could accompany a piano or something similar — something clear and clean. Eventually, as the movie moves forward and his task becomes more grand in scale, so does the music. The orchestra kicks in — I recorded a very large orchestra and choir in London for this.

Have you and Ridley talked at all yet about the upcoming Prometheus films?

We have talked about Prometheus and he sounds very excited about it, and he hinted that I should be very excited about it, but we'll see. (Laughs.) He's right on to that next year — he's speedy. 

You worked on the score for Michael Mann's Blackhat and then wrote a Facebook post [about the film containing "almost none" of your compositions]. What was the experience of that film for you?

That experience was good. I knew what I was getting myself into it. I knew that Michael Mann was the sort of chap who might want to shuffle the pack right at the end unexpectedly, and indeed he did. I actually loved the movie, and I was sad that more people didn't see it. And while I was composing the music, I had a good time.

Two score cues from The Martian can be heard below. To hear the score on iTunes, click here.

Email: Ryan.Gajewski@THR.com
Twitter: @_RyanGajewski