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Harry Gregson-Williams Scores The Zookeeper’s Wife


Harry Gregson-Williams, photo by Benjamin Ealovega
Harry Gregson-Williams, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Known for scoring flashy, effects-laden studio films for directors such as Tony and Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, and Ben Affleck among numerous others, composer Harry Gregson-Williams was excited to take a more subtle approach to the music for director Niki Caro’s, The Zookeeper’s Wife, the true account of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), keepers of the Warsaw zoo, who helped save hundreds of Jews during the German occupation of Poland.

For the composer, it all began with a call from his agent, the director wanted to meet him in her cutting room. He was deeply affected by the scenes that he was shown and offered to write some music immediately. With his vast experience, he would normally be asked to do a film out right. He would not normally do “a demo,” but for this film, he wanted to experiment.

Overnight Gregson-Williams wrote a cue based upon a traditional Hebrew seder, a ritual feast observed during Passover. The seder song, sung by a young girl raped by occupation solders in the film, inspired him to write “Burning the Ghetto,” his favorite cue in the movie. He was impressed with actress Shira Haas who played the part.

During his research, he discovered these songs go back hundreds of years. Not restricted by any copyrights, he traced one of the traditional tunes, finding a melody that became the main theme in the film. He played it for Caro the next day and she immediately “slotted it into her film in a really important spot.”

For the World War II drama, Caro did not want the music to be overly dramatic or emotionally lead the viewer. The score needed to be part of the storytelling, with a soft touch that supported the acting and on occasion highlighted the subtext of what was happening on screen. The post team was determined to retain within the music some of the innocence and beauty portrayed in the happy opening of the film before war transformed the characters’ lives.

“The music is sometimes melancholy,” noted Gregson-Williams.

Chastain’s character plays the piano, so Gregson-Williams thought it was fitting to use piano as a key instrument in the score. “It’s not going to rub against the time frame of the movie which takes from 1939 to the mid-1940’s. It definitely was not going to be a synth score. I always was going to be an organic and partly orchestral score.”

Gregson-Williams did not go for a symphonic orchestra, but rather more of a chamber sound. He used a lot of guitar, smaller strung instruments, and solo strings. Hints of Jewish music were inserted into the score through the use of woodwinds, such as a single clarinet picking out a melody on top of a bed of strings. In tense moments percussion was used to add pace and a sense of urgency, but because each drum has its “own voice,” he was careful selecting the right instrument and its placement. His preference was also “hands on drumming.”

The composer feels the story resonates deeply with people because, “The farther away we get from that age, the more unbelievable it is that these things actually happened. Not just the bravery of some of these people, but also the evil of some of the other people. My mother and father were small children in London. They were evacuated to the country during the war. We had a few stories growing up about that. I have no experience of anything remotely like that.”

When a composer has the opportunity to work with a director more that once, they develop a shorthand and style together. Gregson-Williams’ hope is that The Zookeeper’s Wife is the start of an enduring relationship with Caro.

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