With The Equalizer 2 out June 20, The Meg to be released on August 10, and his first Emmy nod earlier in July for The Commuter (Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams), it’s more than fair to say that Harry Gregson-Williams is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after composers. And for good reason. His uniquely diverse range and appeal has made him responsible for the music to all four installments of the blockbuster Shrek (for which he garnered a prestigious BAFTA), while also receiving a Golden Globe and GRAMMY nod for his score to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. But the accolades don’t stop there. Gregson-Williams’ compelling music can also be heard in Breath, The Zookeeper’s Wife, the box office smash The Martian, Miss You Already, and the original The Equalizer, among many, many others. And because his reputation follows him wherever he goes, he’s worked multiple times with numerous renowned directors like Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Live by Night), Joel Schumacher (Twelve,The Number 23, Veronica Guerin, Phone Booth), Tony Scott (Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Déjà Vu, Domino, Man on Fire, Spy Game and Enemy of the State), and Ridley Scott (Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven), among others, proving that the music he has to offer will undoubtedly deliver these heavy-weights’ varying projects with just the right sonic twist. Ditto for his work on three of the five games in the highly successful Metal Gear Solid franchise, and for his musical contribution to Call of Duty, which became the top-selling video game of 2014, earning the Englishman several music gaming awards. In short, Gregson-Williams has what it takes.
We don’t know how BMI caught up with this talented composer long enough to ask some questions, but as usual the gallant Gregson-Williams answered our call as only he could. Here’s what he had to say.
You’ve worked on so many diverse projects from the Shrek series to Man on Fire, from Team America to The Martian and similarly with two new films this summer in The Equalizer 2 and The Meg. What’s your process for finishing one project and starting something completely new and different?
I’m much better at starting a score than I am at finishing it. I’ve never been very good at letting go of projects. I tend to re-evaluate and tweak final mixes for as long as possible and certainly for as long as the post schedule will allow, often delivering to the dub stage at the last moment.
When starting a project, I often spend time pulling together a distinctive sonic palette for the film and I love this part of the process. Obviously my first port of call would be to find thematic and harmonic material, which I usually do at the piano with some manuscript paper — thematic and melodic ideas, chord progressions that feel right and perhaps simple motifs and often the odd arrangement/orchestration idea. I’d then set about creating a sonic template for the score in Cubase - fresh, curated sounds that will sit temptingly in my sequencer’s template and that can be at my fingertips when I start writing in earnest. Often, I will do preliminary recordings of various individual live instruments playing motifs or phrases I’ve created and I’ll manipulate and edit any promising stuff and add these to my arsenal of sounds.
For instance, for The Meg, in addition to a more conventionally structured theme, I wanted to create a memorable sonic motif for the Megalodon itself. This small signature needed to act as a kind of warning call and could be deployed to instill an immediate sense of fear and suspense when heard. In search of this sound, I stumbled upon the conch as an instrument of musical focus. Its call was both distinctive and ancient, and I felt it offered a voice to the vast terror of a concealed underwater world. After an afternoon of recording a variety of conches of all shapes and sizes (yes, there is an excellent conch player to be found in LA!), I edited and manipulated the raw sounds and phrases and built myself a dedicated Kontakt instrument that housed the finished phrases and added this to my template. Having gone through a similar process with any number of different instrumentalists, I find I’m giving myself every chance of being inspired and absolutely ready to start the composing process for real.
The films Breath and Live By Night each starred the director of the film - Simon Baker and Ben Affleck, respectively. How does working with a director who is also the star affect your job as composer?
I think rule number one, when working with an actor/director, is that you’re required to compose the most beautiful piece of music ever written specifically for their character’s crucial scene! Actually, I found that by the time Ben gets to addressing music and he’s focusing on what sound and score can bring to the party, he’s no longer wearing his actor’s hat at all. Same with Simon Baker. I think by the time post-production comes around there must be a sense of relief for an actor/director, in that their dual role now gets reduced by half.
You’ve also worked on several other films with Affleck. How has your working process changed or evolved since the first film?
Ben loves to constantly remind me that he would’ve preferred to have Tom Newman for Gone Baby Gone and for all of his subsequent movies. Frankly, if I had directed those films, I would’ve wanted Tom as my composer too.
But in all seriousness, the process does become more clear the more you get to know the people involved. On Live By Night, there was quite a leap of faith that Ben had to make which involved his shooting schedule for another project. He had to go off and spend nearly the entire length of post-production on our film in a rubber suit filming Justice League in London. We worked out a simple system of me sending him music over the internet, and bought him an extremely expensive pair of headphones and made him promise he would use these, and not some tiny earbuds when assessing my score. Luckily, he made frequent trips back to LA, so, we were able to put our heads down at a few points in the process and get it all together.
When you continue to work with the same people, a language definitely evolves. I’m always brought back to my collaborations with Tony Scott. Tony used to be very physically demonstrative and always worth keeping an eye on during music playbacks; often his body language said a lot more to me than his words ever could. He would constantly surprise me too, which was part of his tactic I think, to keep me on edge. I had a big, busy studio on Venice Beach and when I was on one of his films, the phone would ring almost every other day, notifying us that Tony was on his way over. Everyone would tense up; the red flag was hoisted, the sirens would sound, and this whirlwind of a person would arrive within minutes. I vividly remember on one occasion, I was in my studio working on Man on Fire, and I was fairly relaxed because I knew Tony wasn’t coming in that day. However, my receptionist buzzed me and said, “Tony is climbing the stairs—he’s about 10 meters from your room!”. He burst in, just moments later, and I leapt up to attention as he said, “Relax, I’m coming to have a haircut”. I responded, “Well, first off, Tony, you’re very bald. Really very bald. And secondly, we don’t provide particularly reasonable haircut services here at my studio”. He said, “No worries, H, I have a girl coming in and I’d just like to sit here and listen to some music.” And that’s exactly what he did. The hairdresser clipped away at the few hairs Tony did have and he watched me work, and that was his way of immersing himself in the score whilst not wasting 45 minutes of his precious time. Even though we had a strong relationship, he felt like it was part of his role to be present for the composing process whenever possible, as he wanted to take the time to learn every bar of the music and be absolutely certain that the score was doing what he needed it to do with every camera move and every line of dialogue. By the time it came to the final dub, Tony had learned every detail of the score he was getting and that’s what made him adept at capturing his specific vision when mixing the final sound, music and dialogue together.
You were just nominated for your first Emmy in the Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score) category for The Commuter (Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams). How is writing for TV different than writing for the big screen?
I wouldn’t be the best person to answer this question accurately as I’ve barely done any TV, but my experience on Electric Dreams was phenomenal and, as I understand it, rather exceptional, since the show-runner/producer approved a lot of what I was writing quite quickly. The whole process took place rather quickly and without any major fires to extinguish, and as I’m used to having the luxury of a comfortable prevarication period on films, that felt very different. I was told there were 10 episodes in the series and the idea was to have five composers each do two episodes, and in addition, I was asked to compose the main title theme. “The Commuter” was the first episode that I gravitated towards, not only because the script was brilliant, but because there was an especially compelling father-son relationship at the core of it. Timothy Spall is an actor I’ve always admired, so it was a pleasure having the opportunity to score something with him in the leading role.
And gratifyingly, the second episode I chose, “The Father Thing,” happened to be written and directed by the show-runner, Michael Dinner, and that capped a brilliant experience all around.
Which piece of music are you most proud of and why?
That’s an impossibly difficult question. Pride comes before a fall, doesn’t it? And I’d rather stay on my feet.
Which film or TV project was the most fun to work on and why?
Team America was a massive challenge to work on, as I was allotted roughly a day and half in which to compose and deliver the full score! Ok, a little longer than that maybe, and I don’t know if I can fully characterize it as a fun process, but it was certainly a thoroughly enjoyable film to have worked on and unlike any other experience I’ve ever had.
Sony Animation’s Arthur Christmas is very close to my heart because it allowed me to work again with Aardman Animation, with whom I did Chicken Run (another fun one) and Flushed Away. It was a blast because I was able to write celebratory Christmas music in the middle of July! If you’d have walked past my studio that summer you’ve been aware of the sounds of sleigh bells and Christmas carols ringing out over the human zoo that is the boardwalk on Venice Beach - it was totally incongruous and great fun.
Working with Jon Turteltaub on The Meg was a fun collaboration. He would arrive at my studio at 8:00 AM sharp every Tuesday morning for his weekly score check-in, bringing with him plenty of enthusiasm and his uniquely acerbic wit. His regular encouragement and positive energy made the process thoroughly enjoyable.
What advice would you give aspiring composers?
Practice your A-flat minor scales, so you don’t always end up writing in D minor.
What do you like most about LA and what do you miss most about England?
I love the diversity that both places offer, culturally and geographically. But I suppose that when I’m in LA I do miss my siblings and mother who are all in England, and when I’m in London recording, I really miss my children who are all born and bred here in LA. So, after many years of trying to get my head around this conundrum, rather than allowing myself to be in a perpetual state of loss, I’ve learned to appreciate how fortunate I am to have lived, loved and worked in both places!
How has your relationship with BMI impacted your career?
Having the structural support of an organization as well-connected as BMI has been totally invaluable. There’s a sense of security that BMI offers to a working composer and I don’t think I would be able to do what I do every day without their continued encouragement. Since that fateful afternoon in late 1995, when Doreen Ringer-Ross shocked me by:
- a. noticing me at the back of Herr Zimmer’s room,
- b. noticing me enough to ask me out to lunch to eat crab cakes at “Ivy at the Shore” in Santa Monica, and
- c. paying for said lunch and suggesting that I join the BMI family immediately.
So, I’ve always felt a sense of community and camaraderie with BMI. They are also a phenomenal supporter of the Sundance Composers Lab and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a mentor there each summer for over a decade now and it’s always a highlight of my year.