ScoreKeeper Talks To Composer John Powell About BOURNE, X3, UNITED 93, HAPPY FEET, And...MAD MAX: FURY ROAD!?!?
Published at: Dec. 30, 2006, 6:46 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here bidding adieu to aught-six with an interview worthy of celebrating another quality year of film music.
One of the busiest composers this year, John Powell scored four films in 2006: ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN (2006), UNITED 93 (2006), X-MEN III: THE LAST STAND (2006), and HAPPY FEET (2006), which actually took him four years to complete.
John hit the film music scene in the late nineties with FACE/OFF (1997) for John Woo and continued an impressive run into the twenty-first century with films like ANTZ (1998), CHICKEN RUN (2000), SHREK (2001), I AM SAM (2001), THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002), THE ITALIAN JOB (2003), and ROBOTS (2005) to name a few.
I talked with John about his prolific year, diversity of projects, and coaxed hints on what aught-seven has in store for one of the ascending stars of the industry.
For auld lang syne!
ScoreKeeper: John, thanks for taking the time out to talk with me this evening. You’ve had an incredibly busy year with a diverse selection of projects. One of those, UNITED 93 (2006), is a starkly contrasting film primarily because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. How did you first get involved with this film and what were some of the things you and Paul Greengrass talked about early on?
John Powell: I suppose I got involved with the film because Paul enjoyed making the music for THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004). So then we kept in touch and he was developing what would have been a fantastic version of WATCHMEN. Unfortunately that didn’t come off but I was talking about that with him last summer in England.
When he got the green light to make UNITED 93, he called me and sent me a treatment. It was right at the very beginning. There was no real script to it. The treatment was pretty much exactly what he made. It was an amazing piece aiming at a very difficult target and hitting it right in the dead center. All the way through we were talking before he shot and while he was shooting and after he was starting to edit. We talked constantly about what the music could or couldn’t do.
One of his favorite films, which was very much an influence on this, was THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966). I was embarrassed to say that I hadn’t seen it at the time so I bought the DVD. They had just released a fantastic new DVD of it and I watched it several times over. There was a lot of additional documentary information about it – a fascinating documentary! I watched the whole thing. (Paul) liked the score to it.
SK: What were some of the first steps you took to get the score just right?
JP: Obviously the first question for a film like UNITED 93, why have music? Do you need music? Does it destroy the reality that Paul so vividly creates in that particular style? A long time ago, I remember seeing a TV film he made called THE MURDER OF STEPHEN LAWERENCE (1999) about a black man in England who was killed completely randomly by a bunch of thugs who were racists. The whole investigation completely fell apart. (The police) made so many blunders in it. It became a big issue in England. I remember watching it for the first time thinking I was watching a documentary. It wasn’t a documentary but I thought it was. I suddenly realized I recognized the mother who was actually a well-known actress. Everybody had taken on this very realistic feeling – and obviously a very voyeuristic feeling.
With UNITED 93 he was creating that feeling so vividly I was worried that music would break you out of the trance you get in this film. It took him a while to persuade me to even write music. In a way, he wanted me to do it. At certain points we decided that somebody needs to go in and just hold your hand a little bit. Even if that’s just a pulse or just a few notes, it broke the tension in a way that reminded you that you were watching a film. Everybody knows the story and everybody knows where it’s going. My feeling was, I didn’t need to create tension and I didn’t need to create emotion. Those are the two things that are most often required of a film composer.
One side of me was feeling that I shouldn’t be doing anything but Paul eventually said ‘Look, we need two things. We need a comforting hand and we need some prayers.’ So really that’s what the score does. Even when it’s just pulsing it’s there to just tell you the story moves forward and reminds you that you’re watching a story. Then at various places – at the beginning, and at the end – could be described as sort of…prayers, in the music. Just so you remember the people who died and remember what happened.
SK: Paul experienced a fair helping of criticism just for making this movie. Were you aware early on that it would arouse such sentiment and if so how did that affect how you approached scoring this film?
JP: It definitely makes you very nervous. You have to respect the subject and if you were to become too indulgent or too sentimental it would’ve ruined everything. I think it would’ve been disrespectful to the people who lost their lives in the story that we’re telling of them. The whole subject matter requires very careful thought. You can’t just go splashing your own emotions around. I was trying to create a perfect relief of the emotional shape people were feeling at the end of this. I didn’t want to add. I wanted to be a mirror. I wanted to be a paradox or contrast. Anything other than just pushing people in the way they would naturally go.
Music can be very manipulative. If there was any feeling of manipulation I thought that would be a disaster. That’s one of the reasons it’s a very minimalist score.
SK: One of the things that struck me about this film is all the various ways this film could’ve been ruined by music. There’s such a fine line there to traverse…
JP: I’m glad we didn’t talk before I did it…I would’ve been even more nervous (laughing)…
SK: Yeah, I can imagine…As you’re scoring the film – every composer gets emotionally wrapped up into their films – but was this more difficult to invest your emotions in and get really intimate with?
JP: Yeah, absolutely. To try and really inspire yourself to write something I find myself coming to the point where I try to become as much of a character in the scene as I can and feel everything that the characters are feeling. With that film, it was just devastating to watch every time. Some of the scenes I had to turn the sound off at the very least. Some of the scenes I wrote without watching over and over again, which I would normally do. With this one I would watch it a couple of times and try and write and time things out. I couldn’t let it run in a loop the way I normally do. I was just too devastating.
SK: At the very onset of the film, the score casts a dark shadow upon the narrative. There’s no doubt about the fate of United flight 93 early in the film even though the images show a normal, happy-go-lucky day in America. Why start the film off this way? How would the film have been different had you scored these early images in a more positive context or even not had any music at all?
JP: Well, again, absolutely every rule of film composing did not apply. Every rule of filmmaking did not apply. You’ve got a story that everybody knows. There’s no point in trying to tell you something different. That’s sort of an obscene belittling of your audience. So the music was always trying to say in a way…we know you know what’s happening. The music is here to be a sort of handrail that just says ‘Yes, this is progressing the way you think it’s progressing and the way you know it’s progressing.’ It was very important to Paul never to throw things out of this fatalistic vision that we all have of the story. The idea is to be honest to everyone’s understanding of how it went down and just illuminate it, that’s all.
SK: This score, being devoid of any definitive emotional commentary, leaves the film open to each audience member’s own individual reaction to the events unfolding on screen. Can you elaborate in more detail on why you took this approach. Did you feel that this was most effective way to make this film a success, again, considering the sensitivity of the subject matter?
JP: I couldn’t hear any other music when I was watching it. It took a while for Paul to persuade me to write. I kept saying, ‘I don’t think it needs anything. I don’t know what it needs. How could it need anything?’ The first thing he actually did was say ‘You have to write what you feel.’ That’s how I broke through. I first wrote something that was….wrong, but it opened me up a little bit and let me get some stuff out that I’ve been bottling up just from watching it for a few weeks.
Once we had done that we knew where the wall was so I could pull back from it. I knew how many steps to come to keep the right presence. I knew where “too far” was because I had done it.
It’s actually a technique I use a lot with directors now a days. Music is such a difficult subject to talk about. It’s a non-verbal language and that’s why it works. If you sit down and try to talk about it you’re kind of buggered. The most important thing, I think, is to just experiment.
We’re going through a time – and perhaps I’m one of its advocates – where music in films is being toned down from what has been used in the past. The idea being is you just let people live the movie a little bit more and allow them to feel what they want to feel. When done well, I hope it’s the right thing to do. I mean, there’s nothing worse than just a really dull score.
SK: Agreed…There appears to be three primary sonic elements in the score: atmospheric drones, a low frequency “heartbeat,” and a smattering of various percussion. How did you manipulate such a sparse, minimalist texture to carry out the various functions the score was responsible for?
JP: It’s all rhythm really. There are three defining things to making music. One of which is melody, one is harmony, and the other which is rhythm. I wasn’t using a lot of melody so I had to make sure that rhythmically I was accounting for myself wherever possible. I was also trying to add in a certain layer of chaos, rhythmically as well. I didn’t necessarily want people to know exactly where they were going. So even though it’s pulsing, sometimes it changes pulse in an odd way, or change tempo. It’s funny, when you strip things down and you just get a pulse going, when you change it, it has quite a profound effect. So where you change it is very important. If you have a bass note that just sits there and doesn’t do much for a long time, when you change that bass note, again, it has a profound effect. So by being minimalist about it, it’s very efficient as well. But you have to find the right moment to change and the right way to change.
Of all the scores that I have done, I’d say this one was three months of thinking and then four days of just working from my gut. Once I started writing, I just didn’t think. It came from a completely different part of me.
SK: At times I thought I detected faint hints of Middle Eastern flavors in the music. Was there some trepidation evoking Middle Eastern culture in the music?
JP: Oh, absolutely! God help me, I just didn’t want to hit the same, what is now, massively overused duduk. I just didn’t want to go there. Paul did want me to have some kind of feeling…again, I think it’s that music in a film breaks the reality. So Middle Eastern music, if shoved down your throat, would’ve been incredibly irritating. I think he wanted just enough of a hint of it to keep people thinking ‘it’s a film, it’s a film…ok I can relax a little bit.’
SK: Yeah, it’s purely in the subconscious. I don’t think you hear it but you feel it.
JP: Yeah, hopefully. That’s what I was trying to do. I was certainly frightened about being overt with it.
SK: At the end of the film, there’s what sounds like a young girl not quite singing, but vocalizing a childlike song. How did the idea of using this vocal ingredient originate and can you comment upon its symbolism?
JP: Well, it’s actually my son who was five years old at the time. I had written a tune and I wanted him to sing it. He came into the studio, which he often does, and I tried to teach him this song and he didn’t seem to quite get it. He was singing his own thing in a way.
It’s used like a little canon. So what he sings is then repeated by the first violins and they keep repeating it. Then he sings another phrase and that’s repeated by the second violins and they keep repeating it. The third phrase is repeated by the violas and the fourth phrase is repeated by the cellos. It was just a way of setting up this little round in the strings.
The symbolism is simple. I remember watching him and another four-year old arguing over something. You can sit there as an adult and say, ‘This is the most incredibly immature argument I’ve ever heard….I want this, no I want this, no I want this…’ I thought to myself, ‘This is the Middle East.’ It’s all political argument. It just doesn’t make any difference if you’re an adult or a four year old. Somehow or another humanity speaks out in this basic and awful language when it comes to what it wants and why it wants it.
What I also liked was that the same child’s voice could actually speak wisdom as well. So within the child’s voice then echoed by one of the West’s greatest invention, the orchestra. It just seemed to me to speak of several things.
This is all stuff I don’t normally say. It’s better not to say it really (laughing). And obviously I was worried that that would sound terribly manipulative. I sent it over to Paul and I said ‘this is either a good idea or the worst idea you’ve ever heard.’ I couldn’t decide at the moment. He listened to it and said ‘It works.’
SK: For those who may be hesitant to watch UNITED 93, can you help explain in more detail why this is a film they should see?
JP: I think it’s one of those films that takes a little bit of bravery to watch. It’s not a film to separate you from a life you perhaps might want to get escapism from. It’s not that. It’s just too real…obviously in the way its made and the truth of the story and where it comes from.
I think ultimately Paul gave it a feeling of humanity. Even though it’s an incredibly difficult film to watch, I don’t know why but I feel when you get to the end of it, you understand more about who you are…as a species. There are greater possibilities than we think in human nature. I feel it’s a very spiritual film – nothing specific about it – and I understand the difficulties in watching it. It took me a little while when the first cut came in to sit down and watch it.
I was always amazed talking to the editors as well because they were sifting across all of this material and they were shooting in this manner where they ended up with a lot of material. It really was shot like a documentary. So much of it was very upsetting. Once you get to after the first third of the film, every shot had something that was just incredibly…prosaic.
SK: Did you ever have the opportunity to view the film with any of the surviving family members?
JP: Yes. The very first time I saw it at the cinema was in Cannes. It was a strange feeling watching the film and watching people on screen calling their loved ones from the plane and realizing I’m actually sitting behind the people that they were calling. I met some of them and they were wonderful and so pleased with the film and glad it turned out the way it did.
SK: Looking back, I don’t know if you could’ve found two more diverse projects. If UNITED 93 was a lesson in restraint, X-MEN III: THE LAST STAND (2006) was a lesson in pure indulgence. Was this the first time you have worked with Brett Ratner. What kind of director is he like to compose for?
JP: I had not met him before. He called me quite early on and said ‘I really want you to do this.’ It turns out he was a big fan of the score for THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002). That was a puzzle because it didn’t strike me that X-MEN was going to work if we scored it like THE BOURNE IDENTITY. He fought for me because I was working on ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN (2006) with Fox and there was a concern that by the time I finished ICE AGE I wasn’t going to have time to do X-MEN. It certainly squeezed me a little bit in time. I probably had a couple of weeks less than I would’ve ideally wanted. (Brett) championed me on it even though I haven’t done the genre before – people were concerned thinking that maybe they needed somebody who had worked on that kind of film before.
SK: Do you think that is silly?
JP: No, I’d make exactly the same…It’s very difficult to see the future. It’s very difficult to see that people who haven’t done something before should be able to do it. Why?
SK: Well, do you think that a comic book genre score is so radically different that they couldn’t look back upon some of your past work like FACE/OFF (1997) or MR. AND MRS. SMITH (2005) or any other of your action based films and see a direction and an attitude towards scoring those films that could translate into something like X-MEN?
JP: Well, it’s difficult to say now. It worked out and everybody is fine. There’s a lot of money riding on it and it’s a third in a series. It was a very precarious position for what could have been a massive disastrous failure. It didn’t turn out that way thank goodness.
It was an easy call for me to do because I had never done that kind of genre before and I love playing in new playgrounds. I had a feeling it was going to be successful.
When I met Brett, he’s the most wonderful kind of brilliant, fun, party maniac you’ve ever met. At the same time, I remember watching THE FAMILY MAN (2000) and thinking it was a wonderful film. I really enjoyed it very much. I really felt that he had a big heart? So it was easy. It made sense to do it and he was fantastically behind me. I just jumped in there and had a ball really.
SK: You mentioned that it was THE BOURNE IDENTITY that lured Brett to call you for X-MEN III. In your earliest conversations with him, what kind of score did he convey to you that he was hoping to have for this film?
JP: We talked in the spotted session. We talked before hand and he just knew that it needed to be emotional and it needed to be big. I did a few experiments and he was very honest with me because my experiments clearly showed that coming off an animated comedy takes a little while to readjust your compass.
He very clearly said to me, ‘The most important thing you have to do with this music is make it sound like the most serious thing you’ve ever seen.’ Ironically, I had to take the film as seriously as watching UNITED 93. Then I would write incredibly serious music. It is way over the top obviously. You’re trying to get an intensity that matches the intensity of the actors and the intensity of the story. The fact that Ian McKellan is wearing a cape and a strange hat, you can not see that. You have to see the belief in his eyes and write to that.
SK: You’re the third composer to tackle one of the three X-Men movies. When you signed on to score the film, were you at all concerned about a musical cohesion between the three films or did you merely score it as if it were its own independent film?
JP: Yes and no. I walked into it knowing the history of the films and actually liking the films very much and liking the history of the music of the films. So I knew that even though it was a new director, there was a language that had already been established. There was no point in reinventing it. The series did not need it at all. We were just continuing from where the first two had dropped us.
But at the same time, obviously with Brett, there was a different vibe around the film. I tried to honor both sides of that equation.
SK: Although you’ve scored a myriad of projects you haven’t quite had the pressure of fan expectation quite like this film carried. Did that add extra weight on you during the scoring process?
JP: Well I think Brett took on most of the burden of any of that (laughing). I try not to think too heavily about what people might expect from a film they’ve loved before and they want the next one to be as good. All I know is that if I serve the film and serve the story then it will be fine and things will work out.
SK: Were you previously a fan of The X-Men? Had you read the comics?
JP: I’ve never read the comics. I’ve never read any comics actually. The first comic I ever read was “Watchmen,” although you really shouldn’t call that a comic. (Before that) I really hadn’t ever opened up any graphic novel at all in my life.
SK: What’s your favorite scene in the film?
JP: I think it might be what we call “Sex With Jean.” The scene where Jean wakes up and tries to get it on with Wolverine. I thought that was a wonderful scene. I loved playing around with that.
SK: Would you like to be on board if Brett or anyone else decides to take the franchise further with an X-MEN 4?
JP: Well of course! I’m not quite sure what they’re doing next. We’ll see.
SK: Before we run out of time I want to be sure to talk a little bit about your latest film HAPPY FEET (2006). One of the things that I’ve heard is that your responsibilities in this film went well far and beyond that of just being the underscore composer for the film. Can you elaborate more on how you were involved with this film?
JP: It started four years ago. I met with George Miller and he basically said ‘Look, I think this is a musical but I’m not sure. I can’t see how we can have one person making the music for the scenes where people are singing and dancing and another person doing the score. I think it’s all got to come out of one brain.’ So he actually hired me for this film and at the same time he also hired me for MAD MAX 4. He was due to be making them virtually simultaneously. I think he thought that every time he flew me down to Australia he could get half of the cost on one film and half of the cost on the other. It was a very pragmatic decision. Obviously, I was delighted. I couldn’t actually believe that I got the call to meet him. I’ve always loved his films. I loved every film that he’s ever done. I love the music in all of his films as well. I always thought he was an incredibly musical director.
So I sat down with him and he said, ‘I can not sing. I can not dance. But here I am making a song and dance musical. We need to do this completely chicken and egg. I just don’t know what to tell you how to achieve what we need. We’re just going to have to start and each iteration we’ll take from you and we’ll pass it back and you’ll pass it back to us.’ And so it went for four years. That’s how we did every musical number. There are some huge ones. Some started bigger and got smaller and some started smaller and got bigger. We just explored every possibility we could.
SK: You were preoccupied with other films during that time but I would imagine that you’re fairly relieved that it is completely finished.
JP: Oh yes. I am. Basically for four years I’ve been doing HAPPY FEET on and off and working on other films – I think I’ve done twelve films in the meantime. I’d say that every score I did while I was working with George on HAPPY FEET got better. He’s an incredible educator. For me it was like getting a Master’s degree. That’s what I told my agent. It’s four years but I’m honestly going to come out of this a much better composer for film because he’s somebody who has an incredibly honest and clear way of explaining what he’s trying to do. He’s somebody who really understands the fundamentals of storytelling.
I’d say UNITED 93 was definitely better because I did this film. Even though I sometimes call it my “hobby film” because I was paid very little money in the first place and then you do it for four years – I think we worked it out to be $6.00 an hour (laughing). But I was paying a lot back to George in terms of what I was learning. It was a very great moment to be able to sign on to this film. I knew I had to see it all the way through.
SK: Had you done song and dance numbers before this project?
JP: Not to this extent no. But the very first thing I ever did when I came to Hollywood was help out Hans (Zimmer) on PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998). Then on ANTZ (1998) we did a little. CHICKEN RUN (2000) there was a song and dance number I had to do. I’ve always sort of dallied in it.
SK: What’s the status now on MAD MAX 4? Is he still on schedule to make it?
JP: You know, I don’t know. I think so. I think George is just coming out of what was an incredibly hard process for him. He took this film on not knowing how he was going to make it and he had to figure out how to make it. It’s not like any animation film you’ve seen. It’s not produced or directed the same way. A large part of it is that it’s a live action director making an animation movie.
He probably just wants to have a sit down for a little while. I know he wants to make it. The script is incredible! I’ve read it. I hope it’s sooner rather than later but at the same time I think he needs a rest before we can ask him that question.
SK: Are you still officially on board to score MAD MAX 4?
JP: You’re never really “official” but having been hired for it four years ago and then getting to the end of HAPPY FEET…I think George enjoyed the process of making the music. I think he felt that I was a collaborator who was almost worthy of him. I’d hope that he would come back to me with the idea of doing MAD MAX 4 when he does it.
SK: When will you start work on THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007)?
JP: Probably not until next year. We’re probably scoring, I think, in May.
SK: Will you be working on anything until then?
JP: Yes. I’ll be doing pre-work on HORTON HEARS A WHO (2008) for Blue Sky and Fox and that doesn’t come out until March of 2008. I’m basically just writing some pieces of music that we need right now. If you look at the book, as with a lot of Dr. Suess books, they’re very musical in the sense that they have a lot of people playing crazy instruments. In this one, the huge climax there’s this whole society trying to make itself heard and they’re playing every conceivable kind of instrument you’ve ever seen…or not seen actually. That has to be done in advance. We can’t just start animating to nothing…it has to sound like something.
SK: I bet that’s been a particularly fun project?
JP: Oh yeah. I’ve been recording all sorts of weird and wonderful things including…we’ve been sticking mics inside cactus and playing them (laughing).
SK: Very cool. I’ve got one final question for you. What has been your most satisfying scoring experience to date?
JP: Um…I don’t know. I do enjoy them all. Going to see UNITED 93 was probably the most proud I’ve been working on anything. I say that with a slightly hushed tone because I don’t feel it’s a film that I should be glaring my ego to exonerate myself. But I remember coming out of it thinking ‘that really worked.’ It was a very powerful experience. It completely picked me up and took me for a ride.
So few films that I’ve worked on I would ever be able to say that simply because I’m so absorbed in the process. It must be strong if I can forget what I had done or whether or not the strings were slightly flat or sharp. I just sat down and watched the film and I really got to the end of it having felt a very complete experience and I rarely feel that.
Premieres are normally mind racking for me as I consider what I should’ve done better. This one I didn’t feel that. I just felt the overall thing worked so powerfully that I could just allow myself to forget that I had worked on it.
SK: Well John, you’ve been most gracious with your time. I want to congratulate you on a very successful and fruitful year and I wish you success in 2007.
The scores for ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN, UNITED 93, and X-MEN III have all been released on CD. There are two CD releases for HAPPY FEET. The first CD features the songs used in the film while a second CD, recently released on Atlantic Records, features John’s original score.
On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I’d like to once again express my sincerest gratitude to John Powell for taking the time to speak with me and also to Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.
Everybody have a safe and very Happy New Year!