Gregson-Williams’ musical background started when he was a little boy touring the world as part of a choir from Cambridge, England. He said that when he was six or seven years old, he could “read music better than he could read English.” His classical music education was the perfect preparation for the choral music he composed for Kingdom of Heaven, the first film that he scored for director Ridley Scott. The director has since tapped the composer for other music, including the themes for Prometheus and Exodus: Gods & Kings.
When they were working on Exodus, Scott sent Gregson-Williams the script for The Martian with a little note saying, “Read it. Like it. Do it.” The composer read the screenplay in one sitting. He noted, “I didn’t need a second invitation. It read really well.”
About six or seven weeks into postproduction, Scott invited Gregson-Williams down to the south of France where the editing was being done, to see a first cut of the movie. They spotted the film.
“It was clear that there would be quite a lot of score and the score would have two or three different angles on the actions,” shared Gregson-Williams. “The central character, Watney, Matt Damon’s character, was scientifically trained and really into his work. The music could reflect that.”
Gregson-Williams used bubbling synthesizers and began with a personal sound. As the story progressed, those themes got stronger and stronger until eventually the music bursts out with Damon as he crosses Mars in a full symphonic version of the more intimate themes heard earlier in the film.
“Ridley has these moments in his films that are visually so wonderful,” said the composer. “There is certain aesthetic because of the geographical location on Mars. There was an opportunity that we didn’t take, to be very threatening and make Mars the bad guy. If you think about it, there is not a real bad guy in this film. We decided not to do that.”
Although Scott is not hands-on musically, he likes to hear what Gregson-Williams comes up with every step of the way. The composer would write music and the director would come to the studio to listen to it. According to Gregson-Williams, the director then makes comments like, “What if we made this a little stronger? What it we made this more ethereal? What if we did this or that? I try those things for him and we see where we go from there.”
For this film, although Mars could kill Watney in seconds if the character makes a wrong move, the filmmakers decided that instead of focusing on the threatening aspect of the planet, they would go for the awe, the grandeur, the majesty and the vistas of this new world. The key instrumentation is a combination of a very un-distorted electric guitar, a piano and a Celesta, a keyboard-operated instrument with a sound similar to a glockenspiel.
“These three things combined picked up the theme early on in the film. They brought a certain mystery to the sound, so one is not quite sure what it was,” revealed Gregson-Williams. “Certainly towards the beginning of the movie when he is trying to figure out how to survive, he’s doing these scientific things to survive, I felt the music could have a slight electronic feel, a techie feel to it without being too ostentatious. There is nothing too raucous, but there is a bed of bubbling synthesizers underneath him enjoying figuring things out.”
There are peaks and troughs in the score. Gregson-Williams used a choir in the latter part of the film to bring scope, wonder and beauty to the tone of the music. He introduced the choral at the lowest moment in Watney’s emotional journey, after the crops are destroyed in an accident.
“I start with a single voice, a solo boy. I use the choir in a type of Greek chorus way, almost like us on earth willing him on. That’s what I love about the movie, this certain feeling of mankind doing things together and trying to get this guy back,” Gregson-Williams explained. “There is a certain goodwill feeling that you get from this movie. The concept behind the choral aspect of the score is that it should kind of be us commenting… come home, survive.”
Singing in Latin suggests a Christian or religious bent, but the composer wanted to avoid that. He found a text by a pre-Christ Roman philosopher, Lucretious, who wrote a long poem, “On the Nature of Things,” about where mankind is in space and time that seemed perfect for the themes of the story.
Gregson-Williams started writing music as a pen and paper guy, but was taught by his mentor, Hans Zimmer, that the modern film composer needed to use contemporary tools like the computer to compose sketches in order to demonstrate his musical ideas. Zimmer told him, “We have to let the director into our world. We have to give him every chance to imagine this music before an orchestral session is called.”
The music might end up symphonic, recorded with a big orchestra and choir, but it is not affordable to do demos that way. Gregson-Williams has a lot of samples in his studio full of quasi-orchestral sounds recorded by major symphonies that he can mock-up into a sample of what the scored piece would sound like. The idea is for the filmmaker to hear a cue, ask for changes, then load that demo track into the edit system, and live with it in the cut to see whether or not it works before a final decision is made. In that way the score evolves organically with the editing of the film.
The film was close to being locked when the score was recorded at the Abby Road Studios in London. For scenes like the ending that were awaiting visual effects, Gregson-Williams scored to the last version he received. Music editor Richard Whitfield conformed the track to the picture once the VFX were finalized.
During postproduction on the film, the composer discovered that Scott is actually an artist who paints in the morning before he comes to the cutting room. “It’s no wonder his movies look so beautiful,” he said. “He talks to me in terminology you would find in art like tone and texture and darkness and light and colors. I translate that into music. He’s not suggesting he wants a major chord, but if he’s wanting to feel a certain warmth and brightness, I know I will be in a major key. If he has difficulty describing anything, he will grab a napkin and draw something. He’s the real deal.”