Sequel score challenges composers to walk a fine line


Ever since King Kong had his son and Frankenstein his bride, resourceful composers have been tasked with producing scores for sequels that do more than simply rehash familiar sounds from an earlier film.

But this summer, with the studios unleashing a nearly unprecedented number of new installments in their biggest moneymaking franchises, many of the industry's most talented film-music professionals have found themselves facing precisely that dilemma: How does one take existing musical structures and embellish them with just the right flourishes to create an exciting score that complements the continuing adventures of, say, Spider-Man or Capt. Jack Sparrow?

"My thing about sequels is very simple," says Hans Zimmer, who scored both 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and Buena Vista's upcoming third installment in the blockbuster series, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." "I think if you just go and do the same thing you did before, you're wasting your time, so I actually think it's quite interesting to see how much further you can take something in a certain style."

Zimmer's sequel experience has been unique in that he's rarely been asked to repeat himself, often coming in on such sequel projects as 2000's "Mission: Impossible II," 2001's "Hannibal" and 2005's "Batman Begins" where the production team's primary goal was to move as far from previous films as possible.

"I kept saying, 'Let's score "Hannibal" as a romantic comedy,' and (director) Ridley (Scott) seemed to think that was very interesting," Zimmer recalls. "I said, 'It should be (Gustav) Mahler and (Richard) Wagner and (Johann Sebastian) Bach,' and I set my sights pretty high. And now to have 'Pirates' make so much money at the boxoffice -- it just gives me freedom to try and write something better."

John Ottman, who scored both 2005's "Fantastic Four" and Fox's upcoming sequel "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," had a similar experience when he was brought in to compose the music for 2003's high-profile summer sequel "X2." "On 'X2,' I had license to do an original score from the ground up," he says. "The theme is in the spirit of the original, but the filmmaking team asked me to do something new, so that's what I did."

Three years later, when director Brett Ratner took over the franchise for last summer's "X-Men: The Last Stand," composer John Powell added his own interpretation, but he says he was careful to study Ottman's work, as well as Michael Kamen's score for 2000's "X-Men."

"Though it was a different director, it was a set of well-loved characters and a well-loved style of filmmaking, so the musical style couldn't change out of the blue," Powell says. "Once I sat down and looked at the themes that Michael Kamen and John Ottman wrote and analyzed them, it does feel like there's a mutation from (the first film) to (the second). The themes do feel as if they're out of the same pot, so I made sure I had at least one theme that felt that way: the main theme for the main titles."

Although composers might relish the notion of building a score for a sequel from the ground up, it rarely happens in practice. Most often, they need to re-create themes and motifs from earlier installments -- a fact underscored by the practice of temp-tracking rough cuts of sequels with the score from a preceding film.

Powell, who has served as composer for each of the three films in Universal's "Bourne" franchise, including the studio's planned August release "The Bourne Ultimatum," says working from his score for 2002's "The Bourne Identity" when he was writing music for 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy" proved tremendously helpful.

"It's one of those things where quite a substantial amount of music that set the tone for the first (film) worked well for the second," Powell says. "So, I didn't need to invent that much more -- just add an extra level of guilt for the character -- and that warranted echoing the original themes from the first movie anyway."

Still, over-reliance on temp tracks always is a danger for composers because the music -- heard time and again by the filmmakers in the editing bay -- can become intensely tied to the images of the movie, which is what Harry Gregson-Williams discovered while working on Paramount's upcoming May release "Shrek the Third."

"On this film more than any film I've ever done, the temp track was almost exclusively from (2001's 'Shrek' and 2004's 'Shrek 2'), which was disconcerting because some of it works really well, but it didn't make any sense logically. There's no fun in just cutting and pasting these things, so I reorchestrated them and really tried to deliver the familiar tunes in a fresh way."

Oddly, a composer asked to "sequelize" his own music might face even bigger challenges than someone who is entirely new to a franchise.

"When a composer's hired to do a sequel to their own score, on the one hand they're thrilled that they're being called back to develop their own material, and on the other hand they're scared to death," says Christopher Young, whose resume includes 1987's "Hellraiser," 1988's "Hellbound: Hellraiser II," 2004's "The Grudge," 2006's "The Grudge 2" and what is sure to be one of summer's biggest sequels, Sony's "Spider-Man 3."

"There's no way to find out whether I'm getting any better as a writer than to compare myself to my own work," Young continues. "You have the examples of Jerry Goldsmith's 'Omen' trilogy and John Williams' 'Star Wars' and 'Indiana Jones' trilogies, and they are tough acts to follow. You have to grow in some way, or you're in trouble."

For Gregson-Williams, the animated "guest stars" who appear in the "Shrek" films provide opportunities to pursue new musical ideas.

"With all three movies, the additional characters and the new story lines give me the breadth to be able to move in different directions musically," he says. "There's a Justin Timberlake character this time, and we have Merlin the wizard, so I was able to write completely fresh themes for them. It's always fun with a tried-and-tested tune, and we have good tunes for Shrek and Fiona from the first two movies. I've given them a good working over in ('Shrek the Third')."

Oftentimes, musical approaches for sequels might start out with plans to break the mold on the first effort only to be reined back late in the game. John Debney understandably expected to use a different approach on Universal's upcoming Steve Carell comedy "Evan Almighty" given that it focused on Carell's character, who had only a supporting presence in the Jim Carrey vehicle, 2003's "Bruce Almighty."

"When we first started working on 'Evan,' the original intention from Tom Shadyac, the director, was he wanted Evan to have nothing to do with 'Bruce Almighty' in terms of the tone, and thematically," Debney says. "And now, interestingly, we've wound up going back to a lot of the feeling from 'Bruce.' That's the way it often goes -- in a sequel, one often wants to have nothing to do with the first one, and in the case of 'Evan,' it just went back down that road. I don't think we anticipated that until the film was more finished."

There's even more at stake on a long-running franchise like Sony's "Spider-Man," which has made roughly $1.6 billion worldwide. Danny Elfman scored 2002's "Spider-Man" and 2004's "Spider-Man 2," but he is only providing some new themes for "Spider-Man 3." That means that Young -- who first collaborated with director Sam Raimi on 2001's "The Gift" -- had to find a way to make his own contribution to the franchise while retaining the identity of Elfman's work.

"They believe the scores for the first two movies have been a part of the success of the franchise, so they want to retain that sound," Young says. "For continuity purposes, someone felt it would be wise to try and integrate more of the original material. So to that end, some scoring has been going on to make some of Danny's original themes work for this movie, and Danny's gang is doing that. All the action stuff is mine at this stage, and my themes for the new characters are there."

"I've had an amazing time with Sam," he continues. "I've never seen a director so overjoyed with the music I've written. It's bombastic, it's explosive, and there are moments where it almost spins out of control. (It) is massive, with a big orchestra and choir and some of the most dramatic stuff I've ever done."

Generally, film composers -- whose reputations as chameleons are among their biggest creative assets -- see this kind of request as fairly routine.

"My belief is if there's a series that has any kind of iconic music to it, it's ridiculous to throw it out because it's what identifies the world of the series, and it's a place of comfort for the audience," Ottman says. "It's a personal sacrifice, of course, because you always want to walk into a movie and have it be completely your own, but if I'm walking into a franchise with a preexisting theme, who am I to have my ego override what worked on a successful movie?"