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Sometimes You Get Lucky: Composer James Newton Howard on News of the World

Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard a James Newton Howard score. Howard has composed music for over a hundred films, collecting a whopping eight Oscar nominations along the way. His scores are as versatile as they are austere; he’s as comfortable with the delicate strings and rhythms of something like Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” as he is with drum-heavy bombast in franchise films like “The Hunger Games” or “The Dark Knight.” 

With “News of the World,” now in theaters Howard returns to the Western genre for the first time since “Hidalgo,” this time taking a more contemplative mode to Paul Greengrass’ adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel about a widowed Confederate captain (Tom Hanks at his warmest and most stentorian) tasked with returning a mute German girl named Joanna (Helena Zengel) to the only family she has left. It’s a different kind of old-fashioned Western, one marked by recitations of the nation’s news more than sandstorms and gun fights, though the film itself has plenty of both.

Largely absent in Howard’s score are the thrumming fanfares and sweeping strings of classical Westerns, replaced by a deeply introspective sound that matches Greengrass’ bleak, bittersweet approach to the frontier. But the absence of that expected grandeur works in the film’s favor—it’s a smaller score, filled with off-key pianos and slightly broken strings that dance awkwardly around each other until they find a curious equilibrium. In that way, it’s not unlike the father-daughter dance at the film’s core, loaded with melancholy and bittersweet possibility. sat down with Howard to talk about his decades of scoring, how COVID is impacting the film music business, and the haunting sounds of “News of the World.”

This is the first time you’ve worked with Paul Greengrass. What’s the story of how you got together on this project?

I've worked quite a bit with the editor of the movie, Billy Goldenberg, and one of the first movies that Billy edited on his own was a movie called “Alive” that Frank Marshall had directed back in the early ‘90s. We really hit it off, and since then, we've worked on a number of films together. [For “News of the World”], I wasn't there in the room but Billy may have mentioned to Paul when they started, “Have you thought about music? What do you think about James?” Paul apparently said, “Oh, I love James. I've always wanted to work with him,” which I found incredibly flattering. And I certainly would jump at the chance of working with him. 

I got a call, they sent me a script, and I went out and visited them in New Mexico. We had a lovely visit, and I wrote a couple of themes. Paul really responded to them, even though, oddly, in the end, they didn't turn out to be right for the movie. 

What didn’t work out about them, and did you have to change your approach for the finished score?

I originally wrote a piece that we ended up trying to use in the opening titles of the movie, when Kidd’s getting dressed in the shadowy backstage before he goes out and starts reading the news. Paul said, which was absolutely true, was that that theme told us everything about the person that we might know by the end of the movie. It was too thematic. It was too warm. It was just the wrong emotional tone for the scene, and frankly the whole movie.

In the end, what I wrote for the front [of the film] was much more austere and cold and lonely. It’s Wichita Falls in the middle of winter—it’s dark and snowing. So we went much more along those lines, and whatever thematic stuff just evolved much more slowly over the course of the movie. 

It’s a much more contemplative take on a Western score, which a lot of modern Westerns have started to adopt. In the heyday of the ‘50s and ‘60s, there’s a lot of horns and bombast, whereas this is much more downbeat. Why do you think that sensibility has changed?

I think newer films tend to play a little more subtext. Composers and directors, we all seem to be wanting to express the same emotions and feelings without tons of notes and loud music. So it's a much more interior approach. 

But really, this is about a man who's suffering privately and is looking for redemption. So there isn't a lot of room to go bombastic. I'm always looking for places to place a nice theme here and there. And we did find a couple. But really, the first time there's any kind of quote-unquote “Big Western Theme” is on the road, when they go to Dallas. That was really fun; I mean, I really enjoyed doing that. But most of the time we’re, no pun intended, pulling in the reins. 

You’ve scored several Westerns before in addition to this one. Is there a different way you tend to approach Westerns than other genres or types of film?

I don't think in terms of how music tells a story, that I do it any differently. I suppose one thing that would come into play is period instruments. You don't want to make a travelogue out of it, but at the same time, there’s a natural convention that feels right when you're using a little bit of fiddle and gut-string guitars and things like that, for the period. 

We tried to do it gently and season it very, very delicately, and not go over the top. But I think that sound is inevitable, even though we have a lot of electronics in the score as well. I think they both live quite happily together. There really are no rules—I suppose that the only rule I have is every good Western deserves a good theme. So I try and come up with a theme.

Talk to me about the theme, then—what was the process for finding a theme for Tom Hanks’ character?

With Kidd, I started with the scene at the end when he goes back into his widow’s house. There's something very church-like about that moment, just like there is about him reading the news of the world to people. He feels like he's giving a sermon, in many cases. So I started writing on piano and actually ended up in a kind of a gospel piano hymn. I played it very subtly in one of the early scenes when he's reading the news. 

I think the first time you hear it in any kind of substantial way is when he's with Joanna. They're riding together and they have that sequence where they're kind of platonically falling in love with each other and teaching each other their languages. Then it comes into full flower when he goes home and walks to the empty house, and goes to his wife’s grave. I was determined not to screw up Tom's performance because it's so good. I was tiptoeing on eggshells through that whole thing. But I think he liked the music, so we did okay. 

It’s really Hanks’ film, and a lot of the film is centered around that performance. He’s a mighty presence, but at the same time, there are long stretches of silence where the score has to take over. How mindful were you of keeping your scoring in dialogue with Hanks?

Caution is the word that I use. One thing I try to do is just wait as long as possible before I come in with the music at any given scene, especially with Tom and especially when he’s with Helena. Sometimes, that creates a kind of lean-in moment as they say, because you think the music's coming, but where is it? When is it going to happen? 

Particularly, when Kidd goes back to retrieve her, and she stands there looking at him and he looked at each other, it’s a long time before I come in. I just try and do less or more with less, use a very light touch, and hope I get it right. There's no rulebook that I know of: sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you're not as lucky. 

I've had lots of scenes and lots of movies where I may have felt in the end, I did not do it justice for one reason or another. Whether I didn't write a scene that I felt was up to par or whether I orchestrated it incorrectly, or came in too early, or it was mixed too loud in the end, or whatever. But there are a lot of ingredients to making that dialogue, as you say, between an actor's performance and music successful. 

You’ve worked on pictures of all different stripes, from actioners to franchise work and so on. Do those tickle a different part of your passion for composing as compared to something like “News of the World” or Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which was one of my favorite films of that year?

I agree with you. That's a great film. “A Hidden Life” was pure and simple “If Terry Malick is interested in working with you, you say yes.” I’d actually started to work with Terry on another movie years ago called “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,” which is not a very commercial title. 

But he came to my studio once—there wasn’t a film yet, just a script—and I’d write music based on our conversations. He came over about four times, and then the next week, he just didn’t show up. And I didn’t hear from him for about eight years, until I got a call saying, “You want to do A Hidden Life?” And I said yes. 

That speaks to the way you collaborate with directors, of whom you’ve cultivated a lot of lengthy relationships. People like M. Night Shyamalan and Francis Lawrence, for instance. I hear your sound evolve and change with them to match their individual styles—what do you value in these kinds of long-term partnerships? Does it change the way you score?

The director I worked with who probably impacted my writing the most would have to be Night. After “The Sixth Sense” didn't get a nomination for music, Night said something to me—of course, he was the expert on this, even though I'd already had like five nominees anyway. (I love him dearly, we’re brothers forever, so I can say this.) “Well, the reason you didn't get a nomination is that the music wasn't singular. It didn't have its own distinct personality.” Which I don't agree with, by the way.

But when we went to “Unbreakable,” he asked me to write some music ahead of time. He picked one cue I didn't particularly want which had this trip-pop drumbeat. I tried to talk him out of it—I was nervous, it’d be dated in 25 years. But he’d wanted me to write something very simple that could be the trademark of the movie.

I think he was always looking for a stamp of individuality. That kind of austere approach stayed with me in everything I write to some degree. Although I can really open it up when I need to on a big action movie like “Maleficent” or “Jungle Cruise”. But Night taught me how to be more disciplined in my writing. 

Francis [Lawrence] is just a great director to work with. He's so musically supportive, he's so musically smart—and he’s a director who did mostly pop videos, and does not have a classical background at all. From the moment I would play him these big, seven-minute orchestral cues, he would just sit there go, “Great.” Francis always gives me amazing musical opportunities. Anytime a director does that, it's a chance to grow and change and try something else. 

You’ve mentioned being acutely aware of writing music that will stand the test of time—you tend to be a bit austere in your composing. Is there a sense that there are norms of composing or composition that you cling to, even as new trends crop up in film scoring?

You know, for a long, long time people weren’t writing orchestral scores without autocorrected drum machines and big, bombastic drums accompanying every cue. I certainly did that for a long time, although I was doing that before a lot of other composers—I was doing that as early as “The Fugitive”. Everybody gets blamed for copying Hans Zimmer, whom I love and adore is also one of my brothers. But I just wanted to remind everybody that I was doing that before in my own world, and Hans has had a huge impact on me - he’s a brilliant composer. 

But I think the essence of your question, “Is it hard to let go of conventions that have become popular and move away from them?” Yes, it is, and has been. People forget that sometimes you put in a big bombastic drum sequence under an orchestral score, because that's what the director wanted. It's not always your choice. You can always say, “Well, I like it better without the drums.” But the director says, “Nah, we really need percussion in here,” then you gotta put it in. 

I remember a conversation I had with Michael Kamen whom I loved and adored, I was talking about one of his scores, the way he created a lot of noise with an orchestra without the drum machines, which is hard to do. He called that “orchestral violence.” I really love that term. I think that's a great term. And I don't think a lot of people know how to do that. 

For me, the master of that was Jerry Goldsmith; he could write an action sequence at a not-particularly-fast tempo, somewhere in the 70-80 BPM range, and just knock it to the wall. 

I try and think like that more these days when I'm writing an action sequence, which also involves hopefully injecting a little bit of counterpoint, another thing that I struggle mightily to get into my scores. I'm always trying to make a better piece of music. 

I’m so grateful to these directors, they hire me and let me do my work. But inevitably, the part that I write that I think is a real breakthrough or doesn’t sound like my normal stuff, they sometimes point at it and say, “That’s kind of weird.” The breakthrough parts are often targeted because they don't sound like the person they hired. It can be tricky.

Does that tie at all into the phenomenon of temp tracks, which I hear is an increasing frustration for composers—having to score to the temp track?

Temp tracks are common in the scoring business. But what I try and do is get involved with the movie as early as possible and create demos that get used as temp tracks. When they were temping “Jungle Cruise,” a score I'm really proud of that will come out in July [2021], they temped it with 145 minutes of action music that were all my demos. That was a really satisfying thing. It's twice the amount of work, of course, because if they change the scene, or if they want you to redo it, you have to redo the whole demo. There's a lot of work there. 

But temp tracks never really bothered me, because they were either emblematic of a terrible musical sense, and I thought, “I can be a hero here and write something infinitely better,” or there’d be a piece of John Williams or Hans Zimmer, Tom Newman, or something, a piece of music that is so good that it encourages me to try harder. So I think it's kind of a win-win. 

I've had a couple of really difficult moments with temp tracks. Once I remember there was a piece in “Blood Diamond,” where they just couldn't get over a piece of music. And then that piece that I ended up writing for “Blood Diamond” was used in the first “Hunger Games” and Gary Ross couldn't get over that one. I almost had to license that piece! So funny, though, it just seemed to follow me around. But usually, they're not a problem.

Going back to “News of the World” for a second, it strikes me as fascinating to watch a movie in December 2020 about an America healing after this incredible dividing event. For Kidd, it’s the Civil War, for us, it’s the election and the end of the Trump presidency. How does that hit you now that we live in somewhat similar times?

Oh, my gosh, there's a lot of sensibilities that are shared without any question. In terms of the music, Paul [Greengrass] said, “This is a broken world, and I want the music to feel broken as well.” It can't be all the things that you expect in a big glossy movie. I started doing some demos using period instruments, which are notoriously difficult to tune, and they sound very rugged—things like viola d’amores or gut-string fiddles and out of tune pump organs. 

Even though you would expect to have them in the movie to some extent, I used them in many ways as a drone, and then the orchestra around them necessarily didn't sound quite as perfectly executed as it would have without that. We called them a “broken concert.” You can't make it sound so ridiculous that it’s laughable. But they do have a roughly hewn edge to them.

Yeah, you hear the vulnerability in those instruments as they play.

And the thing is, those instruments are murderously difficult to play. And the people that played them in London are ancient instrument specialists who play these ridiculous, crazy old works. There’s a harshness and fragility to them. They seem like they’re made of glass, and can break easily. Those are the qualities we’re really looking for. 

Obviously, the pandemic has affected the movie industry in a lot of different ways—I’m curious to hear your perspective on how COVID has complicated the logistics of film composition or recording. How has it changed your world?

In many ways. I compose with my two assistants in my studio, and we’re all incredibly careful and continue to be so. My studio’s a bit of a Fort Knox, so that’s been easy to control. 

But recording-wise, it’s been tough. For “News of the World,” there were no studios open in Los Angeles at the time, so we recorded remotely in London. At that point, Abbey Road was letting forty musicians in at a time. We would sometimes double the performances so you got the impact of more people playing it. 

Recently, I did a Disney animation with Sony [“Raya and the Last Dragon”], and that was our first time recording in LA for me since “Jungle Cruise.” It’s tricky; the musicians were great, and we were very, very careful. Everybody got tested. I stayed in the control room; I wanted to hug everybody, but I couldn’t. Sony’s one of my favorite rooms—we can have up to 100 people or more normally, but we had forty strings, everyone with masks.

It just takes more time and a great deal of ingenuity on the part of the recording engineers. The tried and true recording techniques have to be altered to accommodate social distancing. I never met the filmmakers [behind “Raya”]; in fact, I never saw Paul after November of last year! We Zoom together and talk all the time, but never face to face. It’s odd; it’s kind of sad and lonely. But it requires that people be ever more inventive.

I’ve spoken with other composers who’ve said that you get a different sound with a more distanced orchestra in these large recording spaces.

Absolutely! I think there are a lot of surprises. We did the same thing with the choir for “News of the World” in London, where there were twenty people in Abbey Road studio, which is practically nobody. The choir just sounded so cool; you could hear these distinct personalities in different ways. So yeah, this new world is full of surprises. But given my druthers, I’m still looking forward to a time someday when I can be in a room with my favorite people.  

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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