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Composer James Newton Howard Reveals Methods

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Throughout his prolific career, composer James Newton Howard, a seven-time Academy Award nominee, has scored films of all genres and scales, from small character-driven films such as Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) through blockbuster studio tentpoles such as King Kong (2005). He has received multiple nominations for his work, the latest of which include a Golden Globe nomination for his score for Edward Zwick’s World War II drama Defiance (2008) and a Critic’s Choice nomination for Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight (2008), done in collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer.

Newton Howard began writing musical sketches for Defiance during the film’s prep—his preferred method of working. “After I read the script, I have extensive conversations with the director, then I just start writing music that feels like it might be related to the picture. I’ll send that off to editorial and as the dailies come in they start laying it in. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t,” he says. “We just go from there. I composed a lot of the thematic material [for Defiance] before we got the picture, but once I got the picture, I then reshaped everything to fit.”

Newton Howard was not concerned with writing music that was idiomatically consistent with the Eastern European locale where the film was set, so he did very little research into local music, but he did use a solo violin, which became a thematic sound for the Jewish culture. “I was lucky enough to have Joshua Bell, who is one of the great violin virtuosos in the world, perform all the violin solos in the score,” says Newton Howard. “I threw a little hint of Eastern European harmonic content, but mostly it was just writing music that would support the movie.”

For the big action sequences, the composer had a full 85–90 piece orchestra, but for most of the score he worked with a smaller, yet still good-sized orchestra of about 50 or 60 instruments.

Newton Howard and Zimmer scored The Dark Knight predecessor Batman Begins (2005) together. That score set the template for the feel of the music in the more recent installment. Some of the thematic music written for the earlier film worked for The Dark Knight, but a lot of new music needed to be written, such as themes for the Joker and Harvey Dent. “We kind of knew where we were supposed to go, having done Batman Begins,” says Newton Howard.

The collaboration with Hans Zimmer was successful largely because both composers’ processes are similar. “We tend to make scores the way that people make records, which is doing a lot of layering, a lot of over-dubbing,” says Newton Howard. “We approach it the same way, so even though musically we’re very different, our production values are very similar. In the case of The Dark Knight, I would say we did about 50 percent of it together, where we would co-write each cue. Then Hans took care of the Joker and I took care of Harvey Dent.”

Music editor Jim Weidman has worked with the composer “for a million years,” jokes Newton Howard. “Jim is a master of helping mix the music at exactly the right level. That is a critical issue for me.” Because he was finishing Defiance, Weidman was unable to work with Newton Howard on The Dark Knight so music editors Alex Gibson and Daniel Pinder filled his shoes.

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