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PP-Film Composer story


By Leonard KladyIt’s mid-summer and composer James Newton Howard is sitting in his Santa Monica studio contemplating musical themes for The Interpreter, a tale of political intrigue set around the United Nations that’s directed by Sydney Pollack and stars Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Pollack is still before the cameras and Howard hasn’t seen anything he’s shot. But he’s read the script and he’s talked at length with the director on three occasions about possible musical themes.Two Howard scores recently played in multiplexes: a slightly techno pop, heavily electronic soundtrack for Michael Mann’s Collateral and a more traditional orchestral work for The Village, his fourth outing for M. Night Shyamalan. However, he’s spent most of the summer with his family, and the 53-year-old former session musician says he’s increasingly come to enjoy taking time off between the three or four musical assignments he’s been averaging for more than a decade. Howard’s first score was for Head Office, a madcap 1985 comedy starring Danny De Vito and since then his filmography has included Major League, The Fugitive, Pretty Woman, The Prince of Tides, Falling Down, Waterworld, The Sixth Sense, the animated Atlantis and themes for various TV series including E.R. and Gideon’s Crossing.Prior to Head Office he’d worked as a session musician and arranger for such artists as Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart and Bob Seger. His first brush with the movies occurred when Jerry Goldsmith asked him to play piano and keyboards on The Twilight Zone. Goldsmith, if not a mentor, was someone he felt a kinship and a link to an earlier era in film music. He passed a week earlier, followed a few days later by David Raksin, and Howard is feeling the loss profoundly.“Jerry never scored a note until he saw footage,” recalls Howard. “He thought I was insane to be working on a score based on a script and discussions with a director. Elmer [Bernstein]’s the same way. But I like to jump in right away. It probably has something to do with my experience doing session work. You’re constantly revising, changing cues and reworking things right up to the recording session. I’m used to it. It doesn’t bother me.”There’s also, he admits, a bit of self-protection involved. By working as early as preproduction, he can provide most and sometimes the entire temp score by the time the editing process begins. Musicians traditionally complain that a filmmaker becomes “married” to the temp track and it stifles their ability to be creative. Howard wraps his knuckles on a desktop and says, “Never had a score replaced yet.”At the age of four Howard began musical studies and by the time he reached his teens it seemed clear that he would have some kind of musical career, likely in the classical field. On reflection he can see that he lacked the athleticism to be a concert pianist, noting that his contemporaries were quicker studies and played faster. However, he was also developing an ear for popular music and arranging and that seemed a viable alternative.He’d worked in the pop field for more than a decade when he told his agent that he was looking for new challenges. However, he was taken aback when he landed the assignment on Head Office, as film scoring was not something that had been part of the discussion.“I guess I owe my career to (director) Ken Finkleman,” he says. “We met, we talked about concepts and convinced each other that I could do the job. I was happy and in a total panic but by the time I finished, I realized that I had found my niche.”A few years later he found himself collaborating with Streisand but this time on her film The Prince of Tides.“I’ve never worked with a filmmaker as musically knowledgeable as Streisand. The whole process of working with someone that’s not truly musically trained is fascinating because you have to develop a language to communicate. Some directors like Mann have a highly evolved sense of what they want but no one I’ve encountered has better instincts, sensitivity and awareness of music than Streisand. She challenged me like no one else and elevated my work ethic.”Unlike most contemporary film composers, Howard prefers not to conduct but to sit in the control booth and ride the mixing board. One hears horror stories from people that score movies that their work is emasculated by sound effects or winds up being remixed in a fashion that eliminates the nuances. For Howard the worst-case scenario is a score that’s too loud. He says the on-going challenge is balance. One wants the music to be heard but not to overpower the film. He says the goal is always to make it another texture, another character in the story.“There is no other reason to put music in a movie,” he insists. “There are other challenges. It’s tough to score a badly edited film and writing silence is something that’s very important and almost impossible to pull off.”His next challenge is collaboration, as he’s agreed to work with Hans Zimmer on the new Batman movie. He can’t think of an instance where two film composers have worked on a feature and he’s not sure how that relationship will evolve. Perhaps they will divide up scenes or sections, but he’s open to something akin to songwriting where one might start a cue that the other would finish. Regardless, they both agreed that working together would shake up their respective routines and push them in new directions.The quiet of his studio is suddenly interrupted as his assistant pages him that his agent is calling. He excuses himself and picks up the phone. Howard’s cheery patter soon evaporates and his expression conveys that the news is not what he had expected. He puts down the receiver and stares blankly. “Elmer’s dead.”There’s silence for a moment and an unmistakable sense that Elmer Bernstein’s death marks the end of an era in film music. Howard understandably wants to be alone but stops a moment and says he wants to show his visitor something. He buzzes his assistant and asks her to look for a note Bernstein had sent him recently after they had participated in a panel. When she arrives with it, he takes it fondly as if it were a cherished vestment. It’s a warm, gracious letter, talking about what the two men share: an adventurous spirit and a love for the work. The coda needs no amplification.

Written by Len Klady

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