Oscar Watch: Song and score

This year's best original score contenders discuss their processes

Related: The songwriters reveal their inspiration

Alexandre Desplat, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Director: David Fincher

Director's orders: David had a pretty good idea of where he wanted to go and where he didn't want to go: he didn't want the score to be brutally obvious; he wanted the score to not be overpowering or underlying; he wanted something emotional but not sentimental; and he wanted the music not to be straightforward.

The big theme: It's a man living his life backward, so I suggested that I would try to find a theme that could be played forward and backward, both directions -- it's symmetrical. When I played it to David, it worked and it became the main spine of the theme following Benjamin Button throughout his life. He is in almost every shot, so this theme is the most recurring theme of all in the score, and it's always trying to keep the presence of time passing by in the background of the scene. It's a mix of childlike innocence and the ticking of time, and it's covered in melancholia since he is kind of a disabled person and that makes him different.

Key scene: Finding the love theme was the most difficult thing. Usually the love theme is the link between the characters, and it links all along the movie because you see these people together on screen. The two people in this film are in love, but because their lives hardly meet and they're moving in two directions in time, there's only two moments where they are together and make love -- and that's the only place I can play the love theme.

Jeff Beal, "Appaloosa"

Director: Ed Harris

Director's orders: One of the phrases Ed gave me that I always kept in the back of my mind was "rough elegance." That seemed to fit really well because the people of the West were creating a society out of nowhere, so there was a sense of civility, but there was also a tension between lawlessness and civility.

The big theme: It's a throwback. I do love the use of theme and melody because it's so powerful. The only other film I did for Ed was "Pollock," and all the music I wrote for that was in 7/4. It fit the abstractness of his work and seemed like the right number. So when I was working on the theme to "Appaloosa" I was trying to find a rhythm that felt like these guys, and I ended up with a 9/8 or 9/4 meter, so it was like three within three. There was a symmetry that I really liked. It had a great sense of grace. There were ways to divide that -- you could do three plus six, and the six becomes two plus two plus two, so there were fun little syncopations you could find within that, and it also relates to the Spanish style of a lot of that guitar music that tends to be in a three meter. I started writing a very simple tune, and at a certain point we thought about completing it and making it more realized. And I actually wrote a second half to the theme, but what we found was that when we did that it almost went too far, so we pulled back to that simple kernel of an idea.

Key scene: The scene besides the opening that I worked on many times was the climax of the movie. My first pass at it I played it more as the fiery action payoff of the story. Ed really didn't like that approach, and with each attempt it became more totally emotive. It became about this being the ultimate act of friendship, and I'm really happy it ended up there because the action takes care of itself in a way.

Next: "Australia," "Doubt," "The Dark Knight" and more.

David Hirschfelder, "Australia"

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Director's orders: Baz is an extremely active and articulate collaborator. He has very specific ideas on what he wants the score to achieve, and he's meticulous about reworking and finessing musical ideas to maximize their effect on the emotional drive of the narrative.

The big theme: Baz was very keen to take quite a well-known folk tune called "Waltzing Mathilda," which is synonymous with Australia, perhaps even more than our national anthem -- he was trying to take that and craft it into a theme that would weave its way through the film, and that comes in and out of the film in various guises. For me it was a challenge because a lot of Australians dare I say suffer from overexposure to that tune, so I kind of relished the challenge of taking that tune and using it as an ingredient for the score and taking it from epic to whimsical to heroic to even romantic, in a sense.

Key scene: It was hard to find the music for the bombing of Darwin. The idea was to do something there that was emotionally drawing you through the scene without going right with the action, because the sound effects were going to win the percussion battle there. So it was a case of coming up with an emotional arc that drew you into the characters' realization. One of the challenges of that was, the scene was recut so many times -- it went from three minutes long to seven minutes back to four minutes -- that it was difficult maintaining the emotional drive while keeping up with the changes in the editing room.

Howard Shore, "Doubt"

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Director's orders: John Patrick Shanley is the author of "Doubt" -- it's a Tony Award-winning play he wrote and now he's adapting it for film, so the two most important things we talked about were setting: time and place. The film takes place in the Bronx in 1964, so we really wanted to take the viewer to the Bronx, and I wanted to take them to this period with the music. And the other role for the music is it acts as another voice in the film that's involved in the mystery, the "Did he or didn't he?" part of the plot.

The big theme: I used a very open sound, influenced I think from the sounds of the church really. You hear sacred music in the piece, you hear organ and choir, and I wanted to write a piece that felt like you were in the church because you really are in the church for the entire film, and it's a very contained world. I wanted to create a very old sound that stems from the 15th or 16th century.

Key scene: I think the moment when Sister James (Amy Adams), the younger nun, discovers a vital piece of evidence that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leaves in a locker was important. There's a scene in a garden shed that follows right after that where the music is (revealing) the character's inner workings about, "Should I express these really strong ideas?" to her superior. It's that moment where the dime drops and Sister James tells Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) about her concerns, and Sister Aloysius' suspicions are (aroused).

Next: "Defiance," "The Dark Knight," "Frost/Nixon" and more.

James Newton Howard, "Defiance"

Director: Ed Zwick

Director's orders: Ed's terrific to work with, very musical, and music's very important to him. He's respectful of the music and plays it prominently in the mix. And he's a great action director, really underrated, so there are always lots of things to work with.

The big theme: We tried some things with clarinet, and at first that played very well. And then we explored the idea of cello, and the place we ended up last was violin. We were very cautious about that because it's been done before, and it's been done brilliantly in "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Schindler's List," and it's had a great presence in stories of Jews in World War II. My position was, it wasn't the instrument, it was what you wrote for it. So after a few demos we decided the violin was a great place to go.

Key scene: There was a scene where (the Polish Jews) were escaping the ghetto early on and Daniel Craig's character is trying to talk them into leaving and coming into the forest. Ed shot this beautiful scene where they take off the stars that were sewn onto their clothing and drop them into a little pile on the floor. I worked on that scene early on and it wasn't working, and the reason it wasn't working was I hadn't come up with the theme for the movie. I was trying to find the language of the movie and got very frustrated, and I'm sure I said to Ed at some point that I wasn't the guy to do this movie, and Ed sent me a very encouraging e-mail -- and so I did it eventually.

James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, "The Dark Knight"

Director: Christopher Nolan

Director's orders: Zimmer: Nothing happens in a vacuum, and it doesn't work the way people imagine it does, where the director tells the composer what he wants him to do. These conversations started back when Chris was working on "The Prestige," conversations about the Joker. Then the whole thing was that it seemed ridiculous to put into words and say to a director, "Hang on, I've got this idea (for the Joker theme) and it's one note." So it became more, "I have this idea, it's pretty radical, let me try and realize it and see what happens."

The big theme: Newton Howard: There are some things that are clearly mine and some things that are clearly Hans. The action stuff is really very much both of us, and we really did forget who wrote what. We collaborated in every imaginable way. There was a lot of it where we were four hands on one keyboard, and he would play something and I would go, "No, play this," and vice versa. We did a lot where Hans would have a piece and have me come over and listen to it, and I would say, "Yeah, I like that. I don't like where that moves right there. This tritone movement is awkward, it sounds like Wagner." Then I would send him my MIDI files and he would do work on them and send them back to me, along with his MIDI files -- so from the beginning we wanted to cross-pollinate as much as possible.

Next: "Frost/Nixon," "Milk," "The Reader" and more.

Hans Zimmer, "Frost/Nixon"

Director: Ron Howard

Director's orders: You start off with extraordinarily good writing, extraordinarily good performances from the actors -- and you can actually go and see these performances in a play -- and then you're talking about one of our great directors. All I tried to do with the music was not distract from that. I added mood and tone and a little bit of paste and character stuff to it, but there was nothing that I did that wasn't somehow in the script and the performances and the conversations Ron and I were having.

The big theme: Ron found a piece of video of Richard Nixon playing the piano. He had written himself a piano concerto and performed on some television show. He's trying to make it look as if it were very casual, but it was obvious he had really practiced, and there was one moment where he got a note wrong and you can just really see the anger there that he played the next note with. Plus the piece is very narrow -- it keeps going back to the same note like a dog with a bone. It can't really expand because it has to gnaw on that bone. So the music is always going back to the same motif; it can't quite resolve itself and it can't quite take flight. It's quite neurotic.

Key scene: The interesting thing was the big scene at the end where Nixon finally confesses on camera -- it's one of the few times we have music underneath the character in this often-obvious way. When I played it I couldn't help but play it in an emotional way. My performance was automatically emotional, and I had to get somebody to replay it and play it colder. When you have so few elements going on in a score, it's all about performance suddenly.

Danny Elfman, "Milk"

Director: Gus Van Sant

Director's orders: Gus wanted something uplifting but not in a totally obvious way. There was a lot of parts of the movie where the score is under dialogue or there's a lot of stuff happening, so the job of the music was to stay out of the way and keep some energy going and tie things together -- but the music shouldn't be too on-the-nose or too obvious. So quite a bit of the score is intentionally trying to create a tone and a vibe and moves things along but stays understated.

The big theme: There was one theme I wrote that I think Gus called the "Progress Theme," and I realized that Harvey Milk, to me, is an American hero, and his story is a distinctly American story. He started late in life, didn't begin his quest until after 40, and found himself in the position of becoming a leader and inspiring people. Part of the score is playing the turning point in Harvey's life and him becoming this great man. So the Progress Theme ended up becoming Harvey's theme.

Key scene: The kiss (between Sean Penn and James Franco) was a longer scene initially, but that wound up defining the whole tone for the postscript of the movie, where Gus wanted to lighten up. Except for the big turning points in the score, we wanted the music to not draw too much attention to itself. If it had been a weirder movie, or a similar story but not the true story, we might have gotten more out there with the music. But the fact that it was based in reality, we didn't want to challenge the audience with, "What am I hearing and why?" As fun as it is to experiment, there's a time for restraint.

Next: "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road," "Slumdog Millionaire," and more.

Nico Muhly, "The Reader"

Director: Stephen Daldry

Director's orders: Stephen was looking for music that exists in a conversation with the action, not necessarily music that's being a CNN report on what we're watching. So he defined it a bit more by what he didn't want. Stephen's interesting because his experience in the theater lets him not necessarily say what he wants, but say things that make you do what he wants.

The big theme: One of the first things I decided was, the minute you start working with themes, they start bringing a moral weight with them. Working with themes in a Wagnerian way is good for something like "Star Wars," where you want to be in constant command of these moral polarities, but working on this I never wanted to get involved in that conversation. I tried to keep the music working through texture and orchestration rather than through themes.

Key scene: One scene that was crazy has Hannah (Kate Winslet) overcoming a sort of personal struggle, but she still has yet to come to terms with a darker period of her past. The instinct when you see someone triumphing over something is to be very big, but the difference with this is you're presented with a generation of Germans who are not let off the hook for their behavior during the war. So there's a long sequence which culminates in Hannah signing her name to a piece of paper, and I struggled with that for weeks and wrote several very different versions.

Thomas Newman, "Revolutionary Road"

Director: Sam Mendes

Director's orders: Sam understands postproduction and he has a great work ethic. He knows how to inspire you, but he can have doubts, and in his mind it's going to be done when he thinks it's done. So as I worked I would get some hedging optimism from him about what I'd done, and that would ebb away until we found something he liked. He has a real sharp aesthetic sensibility, and he's going to weigh in. He's never going to just let me do whatever I want, and that's good.

The big theme: It was maybe six or eight months before my real work on the movie had begun. I'd had this idea of this three-note theme with repetition that Sam immediately liked, but I didn't have an A section for it -- a beginning to the melody. It took me a real long time to find a melody that fell into this B section. When I finally did, Sam liked it, and when we put it up against picture it worked -- the picture tells you when it works.

Key scene: The first statement of the theme is at the beginning of the film: An argument happens, and we see Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) arriving at Grand Central Station on his way to work. What are you trying to say there and how are you trying to say it? Oftentimes it's unclear what the emotion is, and I think that's what drives you to theme, because theme is overriding, and you can put it over an image and it will say something and still carry some weight that will move you forward when you hear it again in the movie.

Next: "Slumdog Millionaire," "Seven Pounds," "The Tale of Despereaux" and more.

A.R. Rahman, "Slumdog Millionaire"

Director: Danny Boyle

Directors orders: He wanted something new, something authentic to the Hindu feel on the street, so we started at that point. I sent him ideas, some of which were brief and some of which were not brief, some that were abstract and some more in focus. We looked at the end of the movie and started working on that, and I gave him a couple ideas and he decided what he liked best. We went back and applied those ideas to the middle and beginning of the movie. The role music plays in this is excitement and to provide somewhat of a traditional vibe that surprises as well.

The big theme: I think the love theme of Latika that keeps coming in again and again. It comes in at the beginning as a small thing, and then at the end it kind of reveals itself as something with more structure, so that I would say is the main melody. Other than that we don't stick to any particular themes. The only other theme in the soundtrack comes up in the riots, and we wanted a roller coaster feeling with piano there. But other than that we wanted to go with surprising new sounds and be more eclectic.

Key scene: It is the love scene, because it is a love story; it's a guy trying to find his childhood sweetheart and what a gamble it takes to do that. That's the central thread of the story, so it was very important to find the theme for that.

Angelo Milli, "Seven Pounds"

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Director's orders: The initial conversations were multilayered. Gabriele wanted something that felt cold and electronic at the beginning of the movie, and as the story progressed he wanted it to turn into something more warm and classical. The story was going to be told in a way that we weren't supposed to know what was happening with the main character for the first half of the movie, so there had to be a certain level of intrigue to it and get into the tortured kind of mind that the main character had.

The big theme: We tried to stay away from melodic material for the first half of the movie because it would make it seem too romantic. But Gabriele was very enthusiastic about the melodies once I introduced them, and one is developed into a 12-minute piece we called a requiem.

Key scene: The biggest, most important scene is the requiem and the surgery scenes. From the beginning Gabriele said, "I want you to keep writing the score and working on the other scenes, but let's keep coming back to this scene and working on it until it's really perfect." That scene is basically the climax of the movie, and it's 15 minutes when the whole thing takes off. We recorded a choir there and it's a powerful piece, hard to do because there are no tempo changes and it's one complete piece. It's hard to find cues like that these days; usually it's one 30 second piece that goes into another 15 second piece and so on.

Next: "The Tale of Despereaux," "Valkyrie," "WALL-E" and more.

William Ross, "The Tale of Despereaux"

Directors: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen

Director's orders: I spoke with the directors several times and met with them in London when I was conducting for Barbra Streisand. We had long meetings about the goal of the music and how it was going to work, and as characters evolved they would keep sending me their comments. With the exception of the finale, the movie's constantly evolving -- there's a 30 second scene that hands off to another 30 second scene that hands off to another 45 second scene, so it's always moving. If there's an action cue, it might be Despereaux discovering a skull in his dungeon and getting out of there. That might last just a few seconds -- but in those few seconds there's a lot going on.

The big theme: Each character had their little melodic thing. Roscuro is the character we meet first, and his character is really important. Mig the servant girl had a theme, and I actually didn't really like her character until I found the theme for her. Despereaux had a couple different thematic ideas for his character.

Key scene: There's a scene near the end of the movie, we called it "Andre cooks soup again." It was a big scene for (writer-producer) Gary Ross, and he kept wanting to try different things. He was always incredibly respectful, but he would ask for new approaches. It's a collaboration, and he's very hands-on and wants to keep trying things until he's exhausted the possibilities.

John Ottman, "Valkyrie"

Director: Bryan Singer

Director's orders: Bryan wanted something that was not "Winds of War" and to do something that's more reflective of a suspense thriller that happens to be set in World War II. And knowing that Bryan and Tom Cruise and (screenwriter) Chris McQuarrie and I all revere the '70s as the heyday of great movies and great scores, that gave me license to do my thing, which is to do something with the sensibility of that era but updated to not sound dated.

The big theme: It's one of the more nonmelodic scores that I've done because it's really the heartbeat and pulse of the movie. There are lots of little motifs that reflect the plot, and ostinato, but the actual theme of the movie is very subtle and is overtly expressed almost for the first time in the end title, which is a choral piece.

Key scene: The most difficult scene was the last scene in the movie because everything culminates in that, and there's this massive gravity -- you're portraying a real event and the whole movie is heading towards that. The first idea was (Samuel Barber's) "Adagio for Strings," which I immediately discounted because it was such a cliche -- but that was the type of music it had to feel like. It was hard to (score the final scene), and within that I made very subtle references to the end title piece.

Next: "WALL-E," "Twilight," "The Visitor" and more.

Thomas Newman, "WALL-E"

Director: Andrew Stanton

Director's orders: The mandate was big big big, like all the space operas of the '70s: "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Alien," but at the same time, WALL-E as the embodiment of the human soul -- so the question is could that be done in music? It was a very big net, and the challenge to me was what could be more parodied or imitated than the theme to "Star Wars"? You want to go to a place that identifies the movie to that end but doesn't make you think it's "Spaceballs" or something.

The big theme: When WALL-E grabs onto the rocket ship and goes out in space and sees the Earth and the moon for the first time, there are swelling strings and a love theme, or at least a theme you associate with WALL-E that does deliver.

Key scene: A big challenge was, what is the vocabulary of the Axiom spaceship? That's where I thought, "If I continue sawing away with a 100-piece orchestra I'm just going to exhaust everyone," so I wanted to introduce a more electronic palette without interfering with the sounds that (sound designer) Ben Burtt was creating.

Carter Burwell, "Twilight"

Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Director's orders: I saw some of the film while Catherine was shooting and she got very authentic performances out of the actors, and it really felt like adolescence in a noncondescending way. We talked about staying inside that kind of adolescent passion and how that could be achieved musically.

The big theme: For Edward (Robert Pattinson) I developed this theme called the "Predator Theme," which is supposed to play to his nature as a very high-level predator on the food chain, but someone who at the same time hates his predator nature and is uncomfortable with it, so it's a combination of a sense of power and despair. It resulted in a theme for him that has very powerful percussive element, but there are aspects of the instruments playing where they spend a lot of time between pitches. It never settles down on a particular pitch or chord, and as a composer I really enjoyed that sense of imbalance.

Key scene: I started the whole process with a scene that's in the middle of the film: The two main characters, a boy and a girl, go up into the treetops. It's a montage without much dialogue, so it's very much a musical centerpiece -- and it was clearly the place where the love theme would appear. Romance is really at the heart of the film. Despite the fact that it has vampires and supernatural thriller elements, it's clearly a romance. So I started with that scene, and once I had that, I felt like I had a good handle on the film.

Next: "The Visitor" and "The Wrestler."

Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, "The Visitor"

Director: Thomas McCarthy

Director's orders: The score is minimalist in a way -- it's a small, personal film and I was looking for the preferred way to respond to characters and the drama. The job was to support and make even more obvious the unique character of the picture, especially Richard Jenkins' (character). I don't recall this kind of character in my memories of American movies. I call him a quiet American in his very special way.

The big theme: I believe in the power of a strong melody. Especially the main character, his personality is so well-defined, but he needed another element, which was a strong dramatic theme. The movie is about renewal through friendship and love, so to see him awakening from his original state, my theme was actually changing -- it moved from something quite cold to something that has a major sense of emotion.

Key scene: In terms of challenge, this was the movie that happened with no pain. I had such a spontaneous response to it that I wrote all the main themes in two weeks, which has never happened before. The film's unique language somehow triggered a very spontaneous response from me. Sometimes we work and revise and struggle and wait for a week or so for things to come, but this was effortless for me in a philosophical sense. It was really a joy.

Clint Mansell, "The Wrestler"

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Director's orders: The thing he talked about all along was the heartbeat of this guy -- he thought maybe we could do something about this wheeziness the character has -- and he also talked about a kind of clown music, like a New Orleans funeral dirge. I did some ideas in that vein, and when we put them to picture it belittled Mickey's performance. We didn't want to comment on that, and we realized we couldn't have pity on this guy, so musically we found what we needed to do. Darren never temps his movies with anything other than new material I've written.

The big theme: I wrote this little two-note picking idea and played this sustained E-bow guitar over that, which just really captured the mood of the character in the film. It didn't pass comment on him, didn't judge him, it just helped create the atmosphere the film existed in. The thing with Darren is, even though "The Wrestler" is perhaps his most conventional film, he's an unconventional filmmaker and he's not looking for a conventional film music score -- and that's where perhaps I can help him, because I'm not a classically trained musician, I'm more of a gut-instinct musician.

Key scene: The most difficult was the scene where Mickey's character dances with his daughter in this (abandoned) casino, and the problem there was, how far could we go with it? We'd done some things in the film that had a little bit of emotion to them, and they always dragged down Mickey's performance -- he didn't need that. But this is one moment where we have a slightly poetic vibe, and it was a case of, "If we do this, will it give the film an extra dimension or snap people out of the film?"