Wild about Harry
EmptyMy first impression of Harry was a small bundle of energy," director Andrew Adamson says of his composer collaborator on 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe" and Buena Vista's planned 2008 release "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian."
He might be on to something.
Since Harry Gregson-Williams first burst onto Hollywood's film music scene a decade ago with his score for 1998's "The Borrowers," he has managed to turn his naturally kinetic state of mind, strong classical background and rock 'n' roll mentality into an eclectic slate and high-profile collaborations with some of the biggest names in the industry.
He's equally at home with animation, romantic comedy and epic fantasy, and he's become the go-to composer for director Tony Scott, providing the score for all of his films dating back to 1998's "Enemy of the State" and moving through 2001's "Spy Game" (on which he shares a credit with Ryeland Allison), 2004's "Man on Fire," 2005's "Domino" and last year's "Deja Vu." He's even tried his hand at video games with Konami's best-selling "Metal Gear Solid."
While Gregson-Williams has had a lifelong passion for music, the former choirboy admits he didn't always know what to do with it. A position at the Amesbury School in England had led to jobs teaching music in Egypt and Kenya in the 1980s, but Gregson-Williams' father eventually convinced him to focus on his own music.
He encouraged his son to contact British film composer Richard Harvey, and when Gregson-Williams made the call, Harvey asked him what he was doing the next
day. "I said, 'I don't know what I'm doing for the rest of my life, actually,'" Gregson-Williams recalls. Harvey convinced the young composer to take a job as an assistant, and Gregson-Williams spent the next five years working closely with Harvey on several projects.
"He owned his own studio. He used a sequencer, which I'd never seen before -- I didn't know the existence of such a thing," Gregson-Williams says. "You've got to remember, I went to school to study instrumental music, not technology."
While in Britain, Gregson-Williams met up with composers Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer, who were then at work on Nicolas Roeg's 1992 film "Cold Heaven." The pair asked Gregson-Williams to assist them on orchestrations, and the collaboration ended up marking the beginning of a long and rewarding professional relationship.
"We got stuck at this one bit where (Roeg) really didn't like something that I
was doing," Zimmer recalls. "Harry was in the room, and he said, 'Just a second -- let me play it.' He went over to the piano and played what I wrote beautifully and absolutely sold Nick on it. So, that was the first time I saw Harry really take charge and turn what was probably a rotten piece of music into something fabulous."
Gregson-Williams says that his years working as an assistant provided him with a valuable education in the film business.
"I was assisting people and learning as I went, and that was absolutely invaluable," he says. "I have my own assistants now, and I take that seriously, the necessity to give others an opportunity. Certainly from where I sit right now, it's necessary to have technical assistants, promotional assistants and personal assistants working around the clock for so many weeks in a year. It's also necessary for young people to become part of a team where they can be in a meeting with Tony Scott or Ridley Scott or Jeffrey Katzenberg or Andrew Adamson and see how things work and have the buck not stop with them.
"I guess if you're training to be a surgeon, you've got eight or 10 years with school before anyone's going to trust you with a scalpel, but I didn't waste 10 years to go off to TV and film school," he continues. "I still might be waiting to write the best film score that I can if I had."
Gregson-Williams spent the rest of his film-scoring tutelage in the U.S. with Zimmer at Remote Control Prods. (then called Media Ventures), working on projects such as 1996's "The Rock" and 1998's "The Prince of Egypt" while establishing early U.S. solo score efforts such as "Borrowers" and 1998's "The Replacement Killers."
He says he still remembers the first time he heard his own music in a movie theater. "I had a girlfriend whose cousin made a film -- a horror movie, very low budget -- and I almost paid for the opportunity to do it," he says. "I remember it came out in theaters in London on a February weekend. Me and my brother, Rupert, and I think my other brother, Frank, went to the cinema, and we were the only people in the theater. We ripped the poster off the wall in the cinema as a memento. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Whoa.' I was proud of it."
By the time he established his own studio, Gregson-Williams had developed ongoing working relationships with, among other directors, Tony Scott, whose mixed-media approach to filmmaking might cause a less flexible composer headaches. But the director says Gregson-Williams is particularly suited to his working methods.
"Harry comes right in on the ground floor, at the script stage," Scott says. "I reach out to Harry at the very beginning and try to find what the emotional center of our soundtrack will be. It's not just sound, though -- Harry works with music, he works with sound effects, and he works with whatever I give him. And I work with whatever he gives me. He loves stuff like pictures of locations. Everything inspires him to find the emotions he's looking for in those tracks."
Gregson-Williams says his rapport with Scott has evolved over the past decade. "(The experience of working with Tony Scott is) much like one of his films because it can be alarming, satisfying, it moves at a great pace, and there's never enough time to do anything one's got to do, but it's somehow possibly more rewarding than anything else I do," he says. "I don't know really how to explain it. Let's put it this way: His movies seem to galvanize music -- the music sticks to the pictures like it was meant to be."
Adamson, too, praises Gregson-Williams for his creative flexibility. The pair first joined forces for 2001's "Shrek," which the New Zealand-born filmmaker co-directed with Vicky Jenson, and subsequently partnered for 2004's "Shrek 2" and the "Narnia" films.
While both franchises appeal to family audiences, they couldn't be more different in tone. But Adamson says he didn't hesitate to bring Gregson-Williams onboard for the live-action fantasy films, noting that Gregson-Williams is just plain fun to work with.
"On 'Shrek,' Harry developed a really beautiful fairy tale theme. He called me and said, 'Let me play you the "Shrek" theme -- I'm very happy with it.' He played it for me and then got back on the phone very excited. And I said, 'Harry, you know, it's a very beautiful piece of music, but it's very traditional, and I think Shrek's theme should sound very different because he's not your typical fairy tale character.' He got very depressed and literally 15 minutes later called me back and said, 'Let me play you Fiona's theme,' and he played me the same piece of music! It was perfect because everything about Fiona in the movie was about the cliches of that genre, so that became Fiona's theme.
"To him, the music comes first, and then he almost finds the application," Adamson continues. "On the 'Narnia' series, when we started with that -- before he'd even seen anything -- he said, 'I've got this big heroic theme that I'm imagining at a coronation or something,' and he sat down and played it for me on piano. It was beautiful, and it became one of the strongest themes in the film. He seems to have a very intuitive approach to film music."
The composer will debut a concert suite of his "Narnia" music with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on May 19, and he already has begun thinking about the second film in the series, "Prince Caspian." "I've read the script, and there are a couple areas that I'm researching, but really it's a very different story," Gregson-Williams says. "Hopefully, we'll be able to hang on to one or two of the cues and develop them, but it's quite dark, actually. I'm really looking forward to it."
So, what's changed since Gregson-William's early assistant days? A lot, the composer says. "Certainly from a technological point of view, I wouldn't have thought -- if I'd have looked forward 11 years ago -- that I would spend so much time in front of a computer," he offers. "I didn't even own a computer 11 years ago, let alone use it for music. I found a happy medium between pen and paper and utilizing the technology that's available. It's pretty thrilling because it's changed so much since Hans first locked me in a room with a computer and said, 'Work it out.'"
Even so, Gregson-Williams says the old school thrills of recording with an orchestra are still his favorite part of the job. "It's always remarkable when you've done it with a bunch of amazing musicians -- (it) doesn't matter where you are: Los Angeles or London, you stand in front of the orchestra and wave your hands about, and they just start to play. It's a very exhilarating, nerve-racking moment, so it never ceases to surprise me how fortunate that moment is."
Playing favorites: Williams' most memorable scores