“1917,” Thomas Newman
The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”).
Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about approach – two British soldiers on a desperate mission in enemy territory, filmed as if it is one continuous shot – posed a unique challenge to its composer. “The movie is in present tense and because of that, music cannot comment because that puts you a couple of seconds behind present tense,” says Newman.
“Music is there to help, but the way in which it helps must be fundamental and visceral as opposed to intellectual and reflective,” adds the 14-time Oscar nominee. “Certain musical elements repeat, and there is a kind of friendship theme that doesn’t. It needs to live in a kind of neutrality.”
Newman spent nine weeks in London working with Mendes, composing and recording with an 87-piece orchestra at legendary Abbey Road. But his 95-minute score is not entirely symphonic. None of it relates to the period or locale; some of it is ambient and dreamy, other aspects are driving and percussive, and some involves electronically processed sounds.
Four of Newman’s regular L.A. musicians provided unique sounds, billed with such unusual titles as “asymmetric percussion,” “dulcigurdy,” “vox 1 wormhole” and “carom rhythms.” Celebrated London cellist Caroline Dale supplies a moving cello solo during two key points in the score.
“It’s a very visceral experience,” Newman says of the film. “The question was always, what is the measure of excitement, and how can music help with that excitement, the moment-to-moment suspense? You have to make it pregnant with possibility but not answer questions because if you do, it’s slightly less interesting and, worse, condescending to the experience.”
“Little Women,” Alexandre Desplat
Director Greta Gerwig stunned composer Alexandre Desplat with her initial request about what she was looking for in music for her new version of “Little Women”: “Mozart meets David Bowie.”
The two-time Oscar winner (“Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Shape of Water”) laughs about it now. “When I saw the film I understood what she meant,” he says. “There is something pop in the way she has directed the actors. The art direction has a modernity to it; also the hair, the costumes. It doesn’t play perfectly period, classical or tedious or restrained references to the past.
“The movie is not polite,” he adds. “It’s the extravagance of Bowie, the bigger-than-life attitude of Mozart.”
Desplat did turn to Mozart as a model for his orchestra, however: 40 strings, flute, clarinet and harp, plus not one but two pianos. Noting that there were four March girls – Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – “I thought, why not four hands on two pianos?”
But individual themes for the four key players was too much, the composer decided. “The genius of the film is not only telling that story of the 19th century, bringing it into the 21st century, but also the way Greta created a puzzle. When you think about your childhood, it’s not chronological. You remember moments; she rendered that so beautifully.
“For me, that was the challenge: to link these moments into one. So by keeping the same instrumentation, it becomes a delicate mix of deep emotion, melancholy and joyful, with youthful energy, at the same time keeping us close to the characters.”
The key to the score, Desplat reveals, was the opening scene, as Jo runs to her editor’s office in New York City: “How I should write for the strings, what kind of rhythms, the unpredictable change of chords. From that piece came everything.” He recorded his 90-minute score in New York too.
“The King,” Nicholas Britell
Two-time Oscar nominee Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) shifted his attention from contemporary African-American issues to 15th-century England with his music for “The King,” a retelling of the saga of King Henry V (played by Timothée Chalamet).
The starting point for Britell – whose fresh musical approaches have lately included an Emmy-winning theme for HBO’s “Succession” – was this idea: “What if the music is from the 25th century instead of the 15th century?” So he began experimenting with sounds, including bass clarinets playing out of their natural range, then running those sounds through filters.
Director David Michôd liked Britell’s ideas and encouraged more experimentation. The composer researched medieval and early Renaissance music but ultimately decided on a more modern-sounding string orchestra plus 12-voice boys choir. The latter, says Britell, “resonated with the story of this young man becoming king; it added a sense of mysticism and a sense of fate.”
The strings are especially dark, especially for melancholy scenes involving the king’s old friend Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). “The music is somber, and very purposely austere,” Britell concedes. “There’s also a reserve, too. Timothée’s performance as Hal has this kind of mature, wise restraint, and I wanted the music to reflect that same restraint.”
Britell manages to avoid comparisons with two famous “Henry V” movie predecessors (William Walton’s Oscar-nominated score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 classic, Patrick Doyle’s music for Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 remake), especially in his music for the famous Battle of Agincourt in northern France.
The music told a “parallel story” to that of the muddy, bloody battlefield, he says. “The music isn’t the music of heroism and victory. The only time we feel that is during Henry’s ‘Make It England’ speech, his fanfare moment. During the battle, you hear that piece distorted, bent downwards and left to feel ragged. It’s not glorious.”
Britell’s nearly two-hour score is his longest to date.
“The Song of Names,” Howard Shore
For “The Song of Names,” about a young violinist who disappears in the 1950s, composer Howard Shore had to write a virtuoso piece, rooted in Jewish tradition, long before director François Girard began shooting. For Shore, it was “a very emotional journey.”
Shore, who is Jewish, recalls spending time as a boy with his father in a Toronto synagogue. “I was searching for that sound for months and months,” he says. “I had to go back to my childhood, to write a piece from my heart.”
He spent two years studying Jewish music of the era, consulting with choral director Judith Clurman and Brooklyn Heights Synagogue cantor Bruce Ruben. “I knew that sound,” Shore says. “I just had to rediscover it in myself to create the piece.”
In the film, a man (Tim Roth) scours Europe looking for his childhood friend, who vanished decades ago on the eve of his London concert debut. Once found, the musician (Clive Owen) confesses the truth, which concerns the disappearance of his own family during the Holocaust.
Shore – a three-time Oscar winner for his “Lord of the Rings” music – consulted with Girard on the various classical pieces heard in the film; set writer Jeffrey Caine’s text for the vocal version of the title piece, heard in a 1950s temple in the film; and helped cast David Mutlu (a Manhattan cantor) as the rabbi who performs it on camera. Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen plays all of the violin solos heard in the film.
The dramatic score is not based on the title piece, Shore says, but was designed to complement it, “music that wraps around the world of this film, which takes place from the 1930s to 1986.” He recorded it in Montreal with a chamber-sized orchestra of about 40, mostly strings plus a handful of brass and woodwind players, and a 12-voice male choir for scenes set in the World War II extermination camp of Trebllinka.
“The Aeronauts,” Steven Price
For the mid-19th-century hot-air balloon adventure “The Aeronauts,” composer Steven Price wanted his score to feature “organically wind-generated” sounds.
“These aeronauts were going up above the clouds, and they did not know what they were going to find there,” says the Oscar winner (for “Gravity”). “To me that was justification for the score not sounding conventional. When we were on the ground, more traditional orchestra, strings, play a part.
“But when we rise above, I wanted to feel like all the sounds were from the winds, whether that be brass instruments or woodwinds,” the composer adds. “There are a lot of harmoniums, human voices, pipe organ – all organically wind-generated.”
He began by contacting top London French horn player Richard Watkins. “We recorded loads of noises, blowing through the instrument. It was a musical kind of wind sound that sent me off in all kinds of different directions.” That led to recording an 18-piece brass ensemble “playing incredibly quietly… a really detailed, intimate sound recorded in a very dry room.”
Ultimately Price recorded an estimated 30 different ensembles of different sizes and makeups, with the orchestra totaling 70 musicians at its height, especially during the intense action scenes as daredevil pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) are descending and finally crashing to Earth.
He also experimented with the use of voices, beginning with a 12-voice choir singing “long, drawn-out breaths to simulate the wind, percussive noises including panting for the action sequences, and swoops from high to low and vice versa to support the on-screen movement of the balloon during the perilous moments.” He later recorded 24 women’s voices at Abbey Road for “an ethereal breathy layer” for butterfly and London-through-the-clouds moments.
It was a seven-month process, Price reports. “For me, the big story was the unknown. There was this incredible idea that you might get to see into the future, the wonder of exploration, and the kind of peril that suggests.”
“,” James Newton Howard
Composer James Newton Howard moved in a decidedly classical direction for “A Hidden Life,” Terence Malick’s three-hour meditation on faith and morality in a story about an Austrian farmer whose decision not to fight for the German army has dire implications for himself and his family.
Howard’s haunting theme is played by Canadian violinist James Ehnes, who last year recorded the composer’s violin concerto. It is rare to hear solos by a violin virtuoso throughout a film score (notably, one of the last times was in Howard’s Oscar-nominated score for “The Village,” with Hilary Hahn playing the solos).
“Terry often spoke about the suffering inherent in love, and you feel yearning, suffering and love in that piece,” says Howard, referring to the difficult relationship between the farmer and his wife (played by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner).
“It is a spiritual sounding score,” says the eight-time Oscar nominee. “What happens with a good score is, somehow the composer manages to cast himself or herself in the role of the protagonist. And then you write from their perspective. These were big ideas, big questions, and those feelings really inspired the score.”
Howard wrote some scene-specific pieces but also submitted music sans picture for Malick and his editors to use wherever they chose. While the violin takes center stage, it also duets with piano and is backed by an approximately 40-piece string section, all recorded in London’s Abbey Road on a single day in June 2018.
Heartfelt, often downbeat, but with a handful of hopeful, optimistic moments, Howard’s score totals about 40 minutes, and is augmented throughout the film by Malick’s usual eclectic mix of classical selections (including music by Bach, Handel, Dvorak, Gorecki, Part and others).
“The Good Liar,” Carter Burwell
“The Good Liar” is the seventh film collaboration of director Bill Condon and composer Carter Burwell (earlier films included “Gods and Monsters” and “Mr. Holmes,” both of which, like “Good Liar,” starred Ian McKellen). Their 20-year friendship came in handy when the initial musical approach wasn’t working, and Burwell had to start over from scratch.
The story finds two elderly British pensioners (McKellen, Helen Mirren) meeting for dinner, she apparently unaware that he’s a con man who has targeted her for a million-pound swindle. Burwell’s first idea was to play up the romantic angle, as he pursues her and she seemingly falls for him. That, ultimately, went nowhere.
“Bill’s idea was more that the music should give you permission to enjoy the crimes that you’re watching, but also to push you to the edge of your seat, that something even worse is going to happen,” Burwell explains. “The music does say that right from the overture.”
The Mirren and McKellen characters seemed to demand “a more traditional sound,” meaning classical orchestra, according to the composer. Strings, piano, harp and clarinet became the primary voices, although the couple’s visit to Germany suggested a more specifically central European sound, and Burwell added the metallic sound of a cimbalom to subtly suggest the locale for those scenes.
Burwell composed a main theme and two subsidiary themes (“cat-and-mouse, mystery and the unknown,” he says) for the score. His biggest challenge, he reveals, was composing the final act, which is 20 continuous minutes of music as the tables turn and the twists are revealed.
Burwell’s hour-long score was recorded in New York, one of three major awards contenders whose music was recorded there (“Joker” and “Little Women” being the others). Sixty musicians played on “The Good Liar.”
“Jojo Rabbit,” Michael Giacchino
Composer Michael Giacchino broke his own rule when he accepted the commission to score “Jojo Rabbit.” He never agrees to write the music based on a script reading alone, but Taika Waititi’s writing so intrigued him that he said yes.
“I really loved it,” says the Oscar winner (“Up”). “I just had a good feeling that he was going to do something special with it.”
Waititi’s black comedy, about a German boy who aspires to join the Nazi Youth during World War II only to discover his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic, inspired music that ranged from a kid-friendly march to dark evocations of the Nazi menace to a warm ambiance for the boy’s mom and the girl he ultimately befriends.
“I never felt like I was scoring a comedy,” Giacchino says. “I was scoring this boy’s view of the world which slowly, over time, changes from this little adventure to a much bigger worldview – more serious, more emotional, more centered in his humanity than earlier in the film.”
So, despite Giacchino’s customary large orchestras (sometimes 100 players or more), for “Jojo Rabbit” he used just 30 musicians. “It needed to feel like a child’s world. It couldn’t feel like an epic World War II adventure,” he says.
The most fun element is the composer’s faux German march featuring four recorders and sung by a children’s choir, with lyrics “that praise everything that the Fuhrer stands for.” Giacchino wrote the tune, added lyrics (translated into German) by Elyssa Samsel that were so authentic-sounding that they initially disturbed studio executives.
“But by the end of the film,” he says, “if you were to look at those lyrics again, you would see them in a completely different way and read them as ‘you need to be kind to yourself, be kind to those around you, and accept those around you.'”