Interview by Paul Salfen
With well over 100 film scores under his belt, legendary composer James Newton Howard is almost automatically in awards discussions this time of year and while it’s always well-deserved, his score for News Of The World, the new film directed by Paul Greengass starring Tom Hanks seems to be at the top of almost all of the lists. The often quiet yet majestic score fits the film so well, following a post-Civil War landscape where a former Captain encounters a young girl taken by the Kiowa people and sets out across Texas to bring her back to her family, facing danger around every corner. The instruments range from the obvious to the incredibly unique and enhance the dramatic effect as Howard has been known to do in his multi-Oscar and Golden Globe nominated scores. The EMMY and GRAMMY winning composer continues to impress and set the standard for diverse and respected music that has ranged in a variety of genres. From his days as a composer and arranger for many pop and rock artists to scoring some of the biggest and most beloved films, Howard’s name will be one you will hear even more this awards season.
Here’s more from Howard:
AMFM Magazine: Having something set in a Civil War and Western setting has to be the ultimate canvas for a composer.
James Newton Howard: Absolutely. I’ve had the opportunity to do Wyatt Earp a number of years ago and Hidalgo wasn’t really a Western but it kind of wanted to be one so yeah, I was chomping at the bit. It was a great canvas.
AMFM: You’ve done everything from the Batman films to Westerns to scifi. Variety is the spice of life but do you often base your decisions on what kind of films you haven’t done as much or does it just depend on the script and vision for the film?
JNH: Yeah, it does. Sometimes you read a script and you think you know what the movie is going to be and what I’ve learned is that I can say I’ve done this many romantic comedies, this many murder mysteries, this many chases, and you know what, Paul? Every one of them is different and has their own tone and I think that is what makes a successful score, when you find out what it is about the personality of that movie that is distinctively different from everything else. I never consciously say, “Have I done too many rom coms in a row?” No, I just look at the script and if it’s a great story and a director I’ve worked with before or a director I admire, I’m always looking for a great musical opportunity.
AMFM: You may not interact with the actors as much, but I know Tom Hanks is often more involved than many and he’s also just one of the nicest guys as you’d expect. Has that been your experience?
JNH: Yes, in the case of Tom, I’ve been very lucky and worked with him a number of times and visited him on set a few times and our kids actually went to the same high school together so we got to be dads together but I don’t think we ever got to talk for more than 20 minutes at a time – but he’s just one of those people that is just everything you hope he is. He’s a lovely, warm guy and an unbelievable actor and as a composer, I’m just trying not to screw it up because he’s just bringing such incredible acting brilliance to the screen. But we need to bring some music in there somewhere so I’m sort of tiptoeing around going, “OK, how long do I wait until I enter and how soft should the instrument be?” You think about those things. I’ve never believed that music can save a bad movie but music can ruin a good movie. I hope I haven’t ruined too many things. Tom’s performance is sensational as is Hannah’s. Wow, she’s something else.
AMFM: What was Paul Greengrass like to collaborate with? It seems like you’ve worked with almost everyone before but this might have been a little different.
JNH: I haven’t worked with Paul before. He was very clear. When a director works with a composer for the first time, it’s kind of like your first date. You’re just trying to get to know each other a little bit. He certainly has a strong point of view and we have engaged in many a month long demoing process where I would just demo a piece of music using synthesizers and unfortunately due to COVID, we had to pretty much do the whole process over Zoom. He would listen to the music I was writing and call me back and give me very distinct direction like, “Don’t come in on the cut to the hill. Wait until she comes over the hill because you’re giving it away too early” or “That music doesn’t sound like Tom’s character. You’re giving too much away more than we already know about him” and these kinds of things, which are hugely helpful. He would say, “You gotta trust me to some extent. I do have a pretty good track record.” [Laughs] And absolutely, I did trust him but I was also able to show him some other things I don’t think he was expecting and I think that’s the nature of a good collaboration once you start to get to know each other a little bit – you can constantly tiptoe out on the ice a little bit and do different things. Of course for Paul, this is a very different kind of movie for him. I think he really pulled it off.
AMFM: But this must have been fun because when you work on something set a long time ago, you get to play with old instruments.
JNH: That’s really true. You don’t want to make a travelogue. It’s not a History Channel piece, but you do want to use the instruments of the period because they seem to really stick to the story in a special way. There’s a lot of what you would expect: guitars, fiddles, and mandolins, but Paul wanted a feeling of it being broken, like the country was broken. Everything was broken, so he didn’t want the instruments in the movie to sound too polished, so I used ancient instruments, which are basically instruments from the 17th and 18th century, like viola da gambas, cello d’amores, and gut string fiddles. It’s a great sound, but it’s less refined. That really worked and we surrounded it with a more polished orchestral sound where we needed it.
AMFM: What was the first score that you heard where the music stood out so much that you thought it might be something that you would want to do?
JNH: [Laughs] You know, Paul, I never thought this is what I wanted to do. I bumped into it and I’m grateful that I did. I was a pianist from a very early age, but I remember one of the very first movies I remember very clearly was Elmer Bernstein’s score to The Ten Commandments. I remember from an early age going way, way back because I’m 69 years old – seeing the original King Kong and hearing Max Steiner’s incredible score. Those things stood out to me but it wasn’t until Raiders of the Lost Ark where my eyes really blew open and I thought, “Wow…that music. I wonder if I could ever do anything like that?” I never really pursued it. It just kind of fell in my lap.
AMFM: You’ve also worked with a lot of pop artists back in the classic days. That must have been fun.
JNH: It was. I’m not going to lie. Elton was a real Cinderella story. He was one of my big heroes. When I first heard that Elton John album with “Your Song” and “Take Me To The Pilot” – they had an orchestral component and it really rocked my boat. When I heard that pop writing, great piano playing, and this guy Paul Buckmaster, who had written all of these legendarily great string arrangements…to get to play with Elton was unimaginable story. It’s a long story…next time I’ll tell you the whole story. It really was a Cinderella story. Trust me.
AMFM: We always ask people their Hail Mary Moment, the moment in their life or career where they just had to go for it and it worked out for them. What was that for you?
JNH: Well, that’s pretty easy. I’ve had a number of Hail Mary Moments. In fact, every time I do a movie, I feel like, “Am I going to screw this one up?” My first big Hail Mary Moment was in 1976 with Elton John when he gave me the opportunity to arrange and conduct the London Symphony at Abbey Road for an album called Blue Moves on a song called “Tonight.” I had never arranged a big orchestra before and I didn’t know how to conduct and I just said, “Ah, the heck with it. I’m just gonna do it” and it worked out.
AMFM: Aspiring composers and musicians have looked up to you for years. What advice would you give them because you’ve done a lot and done it so well?
JNH: Well, thank you for that. My advice is always to just write and don’t worry about it. It’s easier said than done. If I didn’t have a movie to compose for, I might just lay on the couch and watch TV. I don’t know. Find a student or somebody that’s making a little homemade movie and just listen to what other people do like John Williams or Hans Zimmer, Tommy Newman or Trent Reznor – copy it without even looking at the movie and the good thing about coming up through the ranks now – in some ways it’s harder because there’s so many people that want to do this job but there are also so many opportunities for young composers – infinitely more than when I was coming up. You have video games, podcasts, commercials, reality shows and everything is carpeted with it. My advice is go for it with everything you can – but it also never hurts to have a plan b. I hope that’s not discouraging but it’s kind of true.
AMFM: A lot of up and coming and established directors would love to get your attention. Have you had some young directors come up and try and get you to work with them and has it worked?
JNH: Absolutely. A lot of times I will visit universities in my neighborhood like USC or UCLA or other places like Berklee and I encourage them – not to give me the music because I can’t accept it – but encourage them and years later I’ll get an email from them and they’ll say, “Hey, I made this” or “I just wrote my first script” or “Would you listen to this?” That’s happened a few times and even if I didn’t work with them, I ended up establishing a relationship and tried to help them to the next step. There was a year I was nominated for an Oscar in the 90’s and I was sitting at a table with a guy named Scott Hicks. He had directed the movie about the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto [Shine]. He said to me, “I loved the score so much you did for Grand Canyon,” which was a movie I did with Lawrence Kasdan in the early 90’s and he said, “I would really love to work with you.” I thought that would be great but I’d probably never hear from him again. Sure enough, about six months later, he was working on a movie called Snow Falling On Cedars, which unfortunately about 25 people went to see, but I did end up working with him on that and sometimes these things do come out of the blue.
AMFM: What are the scores that people most want to talk to you about?
JNH: There are quite a few now – I think I’m at 140 or 150. I get a lot of comments about The Fugitive, recently the Fantastic Beasts movies, and some of the M. Night Shyamalan movies like Signs. A lot of people want to talk about his first 4 or 5 movies when we were working a lot together. Those were interesting scores and attracted a lot of attention for people that were info that. Everybody, of course, likes The Dark Knight and Batman Begins and I wish I could take all the credit for that but I give at least 50% if not 70% to Hans Zimmer on those. He wrote the famous two-note theme and we had the battle of the themes and he won. It was a very friendly competition, but yeah, people love to talk about the Batman movies. They were fun. We had a good time and managed to stay good friends, so that’s a good thing.
AMFM: With all of the awards season buzz going on, does that have much effect on you at this point or is it still nice to get that kind of validation?
JNH: You know, you try not to get too invested in it because in all likelihood, you’re not going to get nominated and if you do get nominated, you’re not going to win. I used to be really, really painfully aware of it and nervous about it and couldn’t sleep the night before. I try not to do that anymore. It’s always an incredible honor if you do get nominated and you hear people say that all of the time, but it’s true because that nomination comes from your peers and your group. But, you know, there have been too many cases where I thought I was going to get a nomination – because you have to believe in your work to some extent and I thought sometimes you’re better off lowering your expectations and if you get it, great.
AMFM: What is the feeling that you want people to take away from the score and the film?
JNH: Paul’s attraction was to a story about healing and I don’t mean to sound airy fairy about it, but what was important to Paul was to make a movie about the country that was totally broken and not that far away from the way it is right now in lots of ways, and the thought of restitution and a calmer exchange with people you disagree with and if the country can get healed again, I think that’s the most important thing he was trying to say. I don’t think he had any idea that the timing would work out the way that it has because it certainly seems more relevant than ever.
AMFM: It is incredibly relevant even though it does take place in another time and maybe this is the perfect time for a film like this to come out.
JNH: Yeah, I think we all need to be comforted a bit. Everything has been so harsh and people are so passionate ,and passion is a great thing but they’re so angry. I think it does offer a little bit of respite for everyone and we can all let it go a little bit and see if we can’t get along a little better.
News Of The World is in theaters now.
For more on James Newton Howard, visit JamesNewtonHoward.com.